Renfro Valley Preserves Appalachian Music

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on March 2, 2008
Stuart Englert The Renfro Valley barn was built in 1939.

Jim Gaskin invites a dozen members of the audience onto the stage at the Renfro Valley (Ky.) Entertainment Center, indicating that the live version of one of the nations oldest radio shows is about to begin.

Come on up, says Gaskin, 70, who has emceed The Gatherin, a 30-minute syndicated radio show, nearly every Sunday for 24 years. We need two or three more to sing the opening hymn with us. After Gaskin comments on the hot, dry weather, the ongoing hay and tobacco harvests, and the resilience of the nations farmers, the choir sings Bringing in the Sheaves, a popular 19th-century religious tune, accompanied by Rick Aiken on parlor organ.

Oh, wasnt that good singing, says Gaskin as the last note echoes through the large wooden barn that hosted Renfro Valleys first radio broadcast 69 years ago.

Renfro Valley resident John Lair built the 650-seat theater in 1939 and began broadcasting the Renfro Valley Barn Dance live each Saturday night to preserve the Appalachian music and culture that was being swept away by the commercialization of country music. Four years later Lair launched The Gatherin, modeled after a traditional pioneer get-together, and today a studio-produced, prerecorded version of the Sunday morning show is aired on 200 radio stations around the country each week. v Mr. Lair used to say that The Gatherin is the only radio broadcast where you can hear Rock of Ages and Turkey in the Straw on the same program and neither one will be out of place, says Gaskin, who writes and co-produces the show.

While Lair died in 1985, a dedicated troupe of Renfro Valley residents and entertainers continues to preserve and celebrate Appalachian culture with variety shows and annual festivals, from March through December, that feature old-time country, bluegrass, folk and gospel music, mountain clogging and hillbilly humor.

We dont star any one individual, says Pete Stamper, 77, a comedian who told his first joke on the Renfro Valley stage in 1952. The show is the star.

Once called the place where time stands still, today Renfro Valley bills itself as Kentuckys Country Music Capital and features a collection of restored log cabins filled with pioneer artifacts and gift shops that sell handmade quilts, homemade jams and mountain dulcimers.

The community, adjoining Mount Vernon, Ky. (pop. 2,592), also is home to the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which is partially housed in Lairs former stone-and-timber horse stable. The 17,000-square-foot facility chronicles the states musical history from the late 1700s to present day, and honors 32 natives and longtime residents, from Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass Music, to jazz musician Lionel Hampton, who have contributed to the states rich musical heritage.

Inductee exhibits include a sparkling sequin dress worn by Loretta Lynn, Merle Travis custom-made Gibson electric guitar, Dwight Yoakams signature Stetson hat and Western jacket, and Boots Randolphs Yakety Sax saxophone.

Our job is to honor our artists, says Robert Lawson, 33, the museums executive director. Our job is to honor country music.

Meanwhile, back at the Renfro Valley barn, the choir sings a closing hymn before longtime entertainer Susan Tomes Laws, 50, clangs a brake drum from a 1941 Buick with a wooden mallet, signaling the end of the Sunday morning show. The sound is meant to replicate a church bell calling its members to meeting.

We always manage, even though it isnt hard preaching, to get in The Gatherin the idea that is so very basic to us: the love of God, home, family, country and patriotism, Gaskin says. We grew up not knowing there was any other option.