This group was highly successful for several years with a stage show and series of radio broadcasts that combined top-flight musicianship with hillbilly dressing up and hamming, although the players themselves certainly all had authentically rural backgrounds. Guitarist Karl Davis and mandolinist Hartford Taylor were a West Virginia duo act that most often pretended to be brothers, seeing as how most such acts in the old-time field were performing siblings. They made quite a few recordings as a duo under the name of Karl and Harty, and also performed under the name of the Renfro Valley Boys. An impressario named John Lair, who also blew a bit of jug and harmonica, formed the first and most famous edition of the Cumberland Ridge Runners, by combining Davis and Taylor with banjo and guitar player Hugh Cross and a fiddler named Homer Miller who was known for off-the-wall antics. Cross was already a well-established country crooner and collaborator on the earliest recordings of songs such as "Red River Valley" and "Wabash Cannonball." Lair created a hillbilly image for the outfit, dressing them all in checked shirts, straw or cowboy hats, cowboy boots, overalls, and so forth. A famous photograph of them shows them in front of what looks like a rustic log cabin, but was actually a replica of Fort Dearborn created for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. The band was the main hillbilly act at this event, and also was the first such group to perform regularly on the National Barn Dance presented by Chicago's radio station WLS. The group became something of a training ground for up and coming country performers. A red-haired vocalist and bassist named Clyde Foley was hired to take part in comical sketches with Miller as well as play music; he soon changed his name to Red Foley and went on to become a huge country star. Another featured part of the group for a time was singer and banjo player Linda Parker, also known as "The Sunbonnet Girl." She was really forced to ham-up the hillbilly part and was always dressed onstage in a frilly gingham dress. The band was one of a group of old-time and classic jazz acts from the Depression era featured on a 1992 video entitled Things Ain't Like They Used to Be. This selection gives a good indication of the manic nature of this group. They are shown performing the song "Goofus" in a hospital, and the members all switch instruments during the song, while Foley does an uncanny imitation of comedian Stan Laurel. The original version of this group fizzled out sometime after the mid-'30s. Manager Lair may have rubbed old-time music purists the wrong way with his excessive hillbilly schtick, but more than made up for it down the line with his commitment to old-time music. As a promoter he founded the extremely popular Renfro Valley Barndance, while continuing to perform in the rarified field of country harmonica playing. Fiddler Allerton Alton Hawkes formed a new band entitled the Cumberland Ridge Runners, and they kept busy on broadcasts for WWVA as well as backing up visiting country artists.
Share this page