Kentucky country music legend and banjo picker, Lily May Ledford
Today marks the 100th birthday of Lily May Ledford. She was born on March 17, 1917 in Pilot, Kentucky. She began her career in music after being discovered at a talent contest in Chicago by John Lair. Mr. Lair was the creator of Renfro Valley Barn Dance, which continues to this day here in Kentucky.
Lily, along with Evelyn “Daisy” Lange, Esther “Violet” Koehler and her sister, Rosie Ledford, formed the the first all-girl group, ‘The Coon Creek Girls.’ They played all of their own instruments, including the fiddle and banjo, and played authentic mountain music instead of sentimemtal and cowboy songs. They performed songs such as, “Sowing On The Mountain,” “Banjo Pickin’ Girl,” and “How Many Biscuits Can You Eat.”
After the Coon Creek Girls started performing, “we began to catch on like wildfire,” Ledford said in an interview in 1983. “We were writing songs and writing poetry and answering our fan mail – we got bushel baskets of mail. People were lining up for our show. They started naming babies after us and farm animals after us.”
In 1939, they performed at the White House before President Franklin D. Roosevelet, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
According to Loyal Jones, former director of the Berea College Appalachian Center, “She played very well. She had just enormous talent and just a great stage presence. She created quite a bit of excitement when she got on stage. She also was a great storyteller.”
John Lair provided a statement on Ledford’s “Banjo Pickin’ Girl” album: “The best thing about Lily May is her naturalness. She is the real thing. She has old-time songs that she got from her parents and is a great all-round musician. She worked for me for 40 years, and was the best woman banjo-player in the country, and she led the first all-girl band in the country.”
Lily May Ledford was named a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship Award. She was also well respected among Appalachian region and the music community. The Coon Creek Girls went on to become members of the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame.
She married Robert Pennington and they had several children. J.P. Pennington, is also known for his work with the band Exile. Robert Pennington and Barbara Ann Greenlief also worked with various music groups in central Kentucky.
On July 14, 1985, Lily May Ledford Pennington passed away. Today we celebrate 100 years of pure Appalachian and Kentucky country music from Lily May Ledford. Find out more on the historic Coon Creek Girls by clicking here.
Jessica Blankenship is the owner and founder of Kentucky Country Music website with over 20 years experience in music journalism, concert planning, photography, and promotion. Jessica is a Kentucky Colonel and alumni of the 2019 Leadership Kentucky BRIGHT Class and a recipient of the Laurel County’s Ten Under 40 Award. Listen to her each week on WFKY on Friday mornings for the Nashville News Roundup.