How Renfro Valley Became Kentucky’s 'Country Music Capital'

The Renfro Valley barn, which began back in 1937,  features "Back Porch Pickin,'" and "Mountain Melodies," in addition to its famed barn dances. (Photo: Courtesy of Renfro Valley)

To many country music fans, Renfro Valley might be a secret. But, to the hundreds of thousands of people who visit the Kentucky music attraction each year, it's a place that feels like home. It's also a place that takes them back to a simpler era.

Started in 1939 by radio executive John Lair, Renfro Valley – actually located in Mount Vernon, KY – features a small yet eclectic group of shops, restaurants, and a campground. But the main attraction of the park is music – and lots of it.

Mark Laws, Entertainment Director for Renfro Valley, says the history of the park – and the radio show that turned the area into a musical attraction is quite interesting.

The original Renfro Valley Barn

"If you go back through the history, and look, Renfro Valley is second to the Grand Ole Opry. The Barn Dance started in 1937 in Cincinnati while they were building this barn. John Lair was based out of Chicago, but he was from here. He went to work for WLS, and had the National Barn Dance going, so he decided to come down here and do a real live barn dance in the country. They told him it wouldn't work, and he'd be hanging tobacco in the barn by years' end, but here we are 75 years later – still going strong."

The show broadcast the first three years on WLW out of Cincinnati, then moved to WHAS out of Louisville. Country Music Hall of Fame member Red Foley was one of the earliest cast members of the show. Though the Renfro Valley Barn Dance hasn't been on the airwaves in years, there is still a broadcast presence, says Laws.

"We have the Renfro Valley Gathering, which is the second oldest continuing radio show in the United States – other than the Grand Ole Opry. It started in September 1943, and remains popular in syndication."

Each week, Renfro Valley opens it's doors to the "Old Barn" for a variety of shows, ranging from 50s music to Gospel to Country – the old fashioned way.

"We still have square dancing on the show," Laws said. "We call it a barn dance, but it's not actually a dance. But we keep comedy, mountain music, and the dancing on it. We have to do some of the new stuff because that's the way it is, but we try to keep it the way it is."

It might be a little bit of a throwback of sorts, but Laws says that's what keeps the fans coming back year after year. "There's still a market for people who are craving traditional country music. They want to be entertained rather than one guy coming out as a headliner. We don't have an artist with a number one record, or anyone who is getting airplay. They come to be entertained."

A screen shot from Renfro Valley's website promoting an upcoimng Sara Evans performance. Other upcoming performers include Gretchen Wilson, Diamond Rio and Sawyer Brown.

But, fans can also see the headlining stars there, as well. "We built the new barn back in 1990, and started having the headliner acts, and now it's been twenty years. The Oak Ridge Boys come here every year, so does Loretta Lynn. This was the last place in Kentucky that George Jones played. They all fall in love with the place, because it's laid back, and it's in the country. We're not Gatlinburg or Branson. That's not a knock, but we don't have the traffic. When people come here, they want to relax and hear music. Music is what we try to sell. We've had some hard times, I won't lie, the music business goes up and down, but we're going strong."

The "New Barn" has a full slate of shows booked through the end of the year, ranging from heritage acts like Marty Stuart and Don Williams to mainstream artists such as Sara Evans, Justin Moore, and Lee Brice, whom Laws said have been three of the biggest sellers among artists currently on the airwaves.

The artists like playing the 1,600 seat venue because it gives them a chance to get up close and personal with their fans. It's an intimate venue. You're right there," he said.

What has kept the tourist attraction going over the years. Laws said they know what they are – and they stick with the formula. "We're Renfro Valley. We don't try to be anyone else. We're pure Americana. We're hillbillies, and that's what we're always gonna be. This is what we try to represent to the world."