Renfro Valley legacy reaches its 80th season
In 1939, John Lair founded Renfro Valley Entertainment Center, nestled along the rolling hills off US-25 in Rockcastle County. Prior to major interstate construction, travelers would arrive by horses and family cars to listen to the sounds of country, bluegrass, and gospel. Renfro Valley would become known at the Country Music Capital of Kentucky. In 2019, it is celebrating its 80th year of performances.
For 80 years, Renfro Valley Entertainment Center has provided musical entertainment. From country to gospel to bluegrass music, as well as comedy, so many acts have graced the stage at both the Old Barn and New Barn. Many of those have gone on to become award winning, internationally known superstars. One of those acts was The Coon Creek Girls. On the other side, many acts were perennial favorites in the new barn, including The Oak Ridge Boys. Other legendary acts that have graced the stage of Renfro Valley include Emory Martin (one armed banjo picker), Dale Ann Bradley, Little Jimmy Dickens, Red Foley, and many more.
The original Renfro Valley Barn Dance started in 1937 at the Cincinnati Music Hall. It would move to Renfro Valley with the opening night being November 4, 1939. John Lair stepped up to the microphone on stage and said, “This is the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, coming to you direct from a real barn in Renfro Valley, Kentucky-the first and only barn dance on the air presented by the actual residents of an actual community…”
In September 1943, the Renfro Valley Gathering radio show began and continues to be the third oldest continually broadcast radio program in America – just behind the Grand Ole Opry and The Spoken Word.
In 1989, a second barn was built on the property and would be known as “the New Barn.” Larger entertainers from Nashville have come over the years to perform in the new barn. Many legends have stepped up on that stage to perform before the crowd. Sadly, several seasoned veterans in country music have passed away over the years and are greatly missed – George Jones, Merle Haggard, Don Williams, and more are just a few.
Two performances stand out in recent memories as those in the audience knew that this would be that entertainer’s last performance at Renfro Valley. Joey Feek of Joey and Rory duo was battling cancer yet was determined to perform again. Months after her Renfro Valley performance, she passed away.
Another one worth noting would be Glen Campbell. He was newly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. It was bittersweet to see Glen and his family on stage performing, yet you could tell some of the beginning stages. Amazingly enough, he gracefully picked through the music notes on his guitar with ease.
Renfro Valley became the setting stage for many well-known performers. One of the most well respected performers would be Pete Stamper. He is truly the face of Renfro Valley by performing his music and comedy, both on the stage, and on the radio at WRVK. In 1999, he released a book, “It All Happened in Renfro Valley.”
Renfro Valley has had many owners besides John Lair that have had a hand in building the community surrounding the original barn. Several times, the property was up for lease with legends such as Willie Nelson, Ray Price, Ray Pillow, and Hank Cochran owning a part. These days, the current owners are the heirs of Don and Vera Evans.
One of the legends, Hank Cochran, really played a history in the operation of Renfro Valley. He loved the place so much that he married fellow Grand Ole Opry legend, Jeannie Seely in the little Redbud Schoolhouse. In 1947, there wedding ceremony for Coy Priddy and his bride, Edith, took place on stage of the Old Barn during the Saturday Night Barn Dance.
Every so often, a rumor will start that Dolly Parton will be purchasing Renfro Valley. Of course, those are just rumors. Many years ago, while he was road manager, Pete Stamper brought Dolly to the radio station a few times. The rumors flew through that she wanted to take over. According to Sarah Smith with Renfro Valley, “those are just rumors. Everyone says that Dolly plans on purchasing Renfro Valley, but she isn’t. We are also very much open.”
Over the years, things have changed with the landscape and show schedule at Renfro Valley to keep up with the times. In the past during the winter months, several bluegrass musicians would make their way to the old barn. One of those was always the legendary Dr. Ralph Stanley. However, as many know about Kentucky’s harsh winters, it would affect show scheduling and the risk of cancellations. Other longstanding traditions were the Ole Joe Clark Bluegrass Festival and All-Night Gospel Sing. Those have been replaced by booking more bluegrass and gospel acts in both the new and old barn.
A couple of years ago, one of the major changes was the entertainment in the Old Barn. A band of Renfro Valley musicians performed classic country and bluegrass hits. The owners decided to change the lineup by replacing the Old Barn showcases. These days there is a mixture of regional groups performing, as well as well known legendary performers who may not necessarily sell out the new barn. Matching the legendary artists to the old barn audience has proven to be a good decision.
As they celebrate 80 years, the staff wonder what the future holds for Renfro Valley. The shops in the village that will remain open include Divine Boutique, Blings and Things, and the Country Music Shop. The Country Music Shop is a trip back in time, especially in the back of the store. The original radio station booth and recording booth is in the back. Along the walls are photos and vinyl records, very much like the legendary Ernest Tubb Record Shop in Nashville. The town of Mt. Vernon recently annexed Renfro Valley into the city limits and approved the sale of alcohol.
According to Sarah, “Renfro Valley hopes to sell beer at shows come spring.” When asked about the possibility of a restaurant, she said that they hope that the alcohol sales will pull the interest of a restaurant to give guests an opportunity to eat prior to performances.
If you plan on coming to a show at Renfro Valley and need a place to stay, don’t forget to bring your RV camper and park in one of their many camping locations. They have 50 amp and 30 amp spots for those that enjoy traveling on the road. There is also lodging nearby with several hotels down the road.
If you enjoy music history, you will want to visit the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and museum beside Renfro Valley Entertainment Center. The Hall of Fame is in the National Historic Registered horse barn that was owned by John Lair. The gift shop and museum hosts performances throughout the week, as well as display many artifacts depicting Kentucky’s rich musical history.
As far as the 2019 season goes, music fans should check out the performance schedule at www.renfrovalley.com. There is guaranteed to be something for everyone. The season kicks off with the Oak Ridge Boys in the New Barn and will end in December with the Christmas show of the Oak Ridge Boys. From bluegrass to gospel to country to rock, there is an abundance of music for the whole family.
Jessica Blankenship is the owner and founder of Kentucky Country Music website. The Berea College graduate has been a music journalist and historian for over 20 years. She enjoys providing concert photography, reviews, historical articles, red carpet event coverage, and exclusive interviews of your favorite musicians. Jessica is proud to be a Kentucky Colonel and alumni of the FFA and 4-H Clubs. In 2018, she was named one of Laurel County’s Ten Under 40 Award Recipients. In 2019, she was a member of the Inaugural class of BRIGHT Kentucky as part of Leadership Kentucky. She has been featured on the Kentucky Music Preview podcast, Hollercast podcast, Overtones radio show, WFKY Nashville News Roundup, KET, and more. Beyond music, she enjoys traveling, helping her community, collecting gnomes, and Volkswagens.