by Meagan Lawson
Hundreds of people are piling out of busses and cramped cars on Saturday afternoon, many leaning on canes or clutching grandbabies as they step onto the hot asphalt. Though Renfro Valley’s lodge, campgrounds, cabins, and restaurant are full, today is no special occasion.
Each year, thousands of visitors sift in and out of Renfro Valley, where they come to enjoy shows put on by the resident musicians and comedians, but usually leave feeling as though they have visited family.
Like many in the valley, General Manager Connie Hunt’s roots here run deep, to a time before John Lair began the third oldest radio show in the country.
“It’s almost eerie,” Hunt laughs, aware that people are intrigued by her almost fateful involvement with Renfro Valley. As a child, Lair attended barn dances hosted by Hunt’s great-grandparents. Years later, Lair thought a barn dance would be well received in his rural hometown (previous barn dance shows were broadcast from urban centers like Cincinnati), and in November 1939, Lair began the show that started it all—the Renfro Valley Barn Dance.
“I can remember sitting in the old barn…on old wooden chairs and seeing Mr. Lair at the microphone. I never dreamed I would be this involved in Renfro Valley.”
One of the perks of being general manager is hearing from people whose lives Renfro Valley has affected. Hunt was recently contacted by a man who had a paper route, along with his brothers, as a child. Each Sunday morning the boys’ grandfather would wake up at 4 a.m. to drive them on their routes, and they would listen to the “Renfro Valley Gatherin’” in the car, broadcast from WJR in Detroit.
“Now, he’s over 40 years old and he tracked it down, because it was that important to him…I’ll probably tear up talking about it.”
“The Renfro Valley Gatherin’” is an event recorded each Sunday and aired on 175 radio stations.
Hunt knows that once people get a taste of Renfro Valley, they’ll want more. “Once people come, we don’t have trouble getting them back. A lot of times we say, ‘It’s easy to find, hard to forget.’”
In the past, Renfro Valley has typically drawn the over 50 crowd, but Hunt has witnessed a shift as younger fans come to hear headlining concerts by artists like Keith Urban.
Saturday, Oct. 10, though, brought headliner Loretta Lynn, a country legend who normally pulls in the typical Renfro Valley age bracket. But her 2004 album “Van Lear Rose,” produced by Jack White of the White Stripes, introduced Lynn’s music to a new generation of fans.
While many of Lynn’s fans seem confused and annoyed by the sizing of the deep-red baby doll tees available at the merchandise booth, due in part to “Van Lear Rose,” most are happier about Lynn bringing her granddaughter, Tayla Lynn, on tour.
Though Tayla’s performance was more “Redneck Woman,” than “Honky Tonk Girl,” Loretta’s fans seem thrilled that the Lynns are keeping it in the family.
Loretta fan Frieda Martin is keeping it in the family too. She rushes up to Tayla to have a picture taken, bursting with energy, and hurriedly explains that her sister brought her to hear Loretta for her birthday. She says she’s loved Loretta since she was a child and worked on a farm just to earn money to buy her records.
“She was beautiful then and she’s beautiful now,” she coos, her excitement not concealed by her heavy lisp.
Tayla gushes her thanks, bubbling with gratitude. She tells everyone how important both her grandmothers have been in her life and recounts the oddity of having Loretta sing her “Portland, Oregon” as a child, a song that Loretta dueted on with Jack White.
As the room clears, Tayla considers Renfro Valley, where she’s played five years in a row. Like everyone else, she and her grandmother keep coming back.
“There is something special about it,” she emphasizes is, as though she can’t quite put her finger on what, and glances around the empty 1500 seat barn theater.
“You know, so much of her family, my family, lives here, and I speak for my grandmother too. I think Eastern Kentucky just really supports her.”
Hunt agrees that there’s something special about being in the valley.
“People always say it’s just like coming home. It’s almost spiritual, not over the top, but you feel like you’ve been visiting with your neighbors.”