John Lair

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This Kentucky native has had a perfectly respectable career as a songwriter and harmonica player. In fact, his credits would raise a few eyebrows to be sure. There are supposedly more than 500 songs written…
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This Kentucky native has had a perfectly respectable career as a songwriter and harmonica player. In fact, his credits would raise a few eyebrows to be sure. There are supposedly more than 500 songs written by this man. One of them, "Freight Train Blues," was recorded by a list of talent that includes none other than Bob Dylan, Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, and the Weavers. And although the role of harmonica is much underplayed in country music compared to the blues, Lair performed regularly on the instrument for something like 60 years, starting with classic '30s tracks with the Cumberland Ridge Runners. But his real mark on country music has been as a manager, organizer, and promoter, and in this capacity made a massive impact on the Ohio and Kentucky music scene by founding the Renfro Valley Barn Dance in 1937 in Ohio, moving back to his home state a few years later. This enterprise became an institution that outlived its creator, who had returned home to Kentucky after World War I with an intense desire to do something to both create enterprise in his home territory but also to preserve and nurture the traditional culture. For many years the Barn Dance was home to acts such as Homer & Jethro and Old Joe Clark as well as groups and artists managed by Lair himself. When he first opened the show up in Kentucky, local skeptics said that within a month the converted barn facility would be back in its original role as a spot for drying tobacco. But thousands of area residents wound up flocking to the tiny valley to hear the concerts there. Lair made a reputation as an inventive promoter. One of his famous moves was to purchase the Great Saltpetre Cave from a financially-troubled fellow named Charles Anderson Mullins or "Biggie." Lair promptly set up a series of barn dances to be held in the damp depths of the cave. The success of Lair's promotions spread to the television wave. In the mid-'50s he was host of the CBS show John Lair's Renfro Valley Folks, and in the '60s a film was produced that was entitled John Lair's Renfro Valley Barndance, which is shown regularly at the Barndance itself. In 2000, there were more than 2000 radio stations broadcasting the Renfro Valley Getherin' produced by Lair's empire in the valley. He was also a manager of many famous old-time bands. He not only played jug and harmonica in the Ridge Runners group, he was the force that put the entire band together by coming up with the idea of combining the country duo of Karl Davis and Hartford Taylor, also known as the Renfro Valley Boys and Karl and Harty with the talented cowboy songwriter, singer, and banjo player Hugh Cross and the extroverted, nutty bassist, and comedian Slim Miller. Later, Lair would discover country artist Red Foley and add him to this band as a comic foil for Miller until Foley launched his own hitmaking country career. Lair also managed female banjo picker Lily May Ledford, and was the man responsible for naming her classic old-time band Coon Creek Girls. This act showed the crass, commercially-driven side of the man, as Ledford was apparently irate that her band was going to named after a creek that was nowhere near her home. "The audience out in radio land won't know the difference," Lair apparently shrugged. Of course he was right, but the career of Lair was just as often about not so subtle misrepresentions of old-time music culture as it was about promoting the artists or preserving the historical traditions of the music. He was able to launch the Ridge Runners as the first nationally broadcast hillbilly band by pushing the hillbilly image drastically through publicity photographs and cornball comic sketches. He kept the talented female banjo player and singer Linda Parker dressed up in a frilly gingham dress in her onstage role as the "sunbonnet girl," and also created the character of the man-hungry hillbilly girl LuluBelle for singer Myrtle Cooper, thus paving the way for the antics of L'il Abner, The Beverly Hillbillies, and so on. None of which can be said to have had a very positive effect on the perception of Appalachia. Lair tried to revive the success of Coon Creek Girls in the '80s with New Coon Creek Girls. He spent a good deal of his time as a historian, writer, and collector, and following his death much of the archival material he had accumulated was absorbed into the new John Lair Collection in the Southern Appalachian archives at the Hutchins Library at Berea College. He also wrote four books on Kentucky life and history and the well-received volume Songs Lincoln Loved. There are books about Lair and his career as well. It All Happened in Renfro Valley was written by Pete Stampfer, and On the Air With John Lair by Ann Henderson also includes sheet music to many of his songs.