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Coon Creek Girls~Shortenin' Bread~1939 Renfro Valley Radio Transcript

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Published on Oct 30, 2015

Lily Mae Ledford came from Chimney Top Creek in Powell Co.,Kentucky where the family share-cropped corn and sorghum in the narrow valleys between the steep cliffs of the Red River, now a part of Red River Gorge National Geographic Area. The family of 14 kids and two resourceful parents caught wild hogs, squirrels, rabbits, fish and made their own medicines from the plants in the gorge. The family lived in a two room house with a lean to "kitchen" . The Ledford family lived the life that John Lair could only dream about. Lair was born in 1894 in Rockcastle Co., Kentucky about 50 miles southwest of the Red River Gorge. His love of mountain life came from the tent-meetings, square dances, and singing bees that he experienced as a young boy in the rural Kentucky hills; events that would shape Lair's life forever. Lair had been in the army, seen the world, and as a young man, landed a job as music librarian at powerhouse WLS in Chicago. He was a dynamo and soon had risen to be the station's talent manager, a position that allowed him to bring in the area's best talent , especially talent from the Kentucky hills. While on vacation back in Kentucky, he realized that the way of life he had known had disappeared, the talent had been lured away by the money of big city radio and that he had been the biggest offender. So, he devised a plan to right that wrong. He dreamed of building a music center in his native Renfro valley "where time would stand still". Back in Red River Gorge, Lily Mae Ledford, brother Coyen and older sister Rosie had formed a group in the early 30s calling themselves the Red River Ramblers. In 1936, they won a talent contest in Kentucky which had brought them to the attention of John Lair of WLS, but he only wanted Lily Mae. The tall 19 year old became a sensation in Chicago with her new style of music but she learned even more from her association with Red Foley, Patsy Montana, The Girls of the Golden West (Dolly and Molly Good), Lula Belle, and the Cackle Sisters, (Mary Jane and Carolyn de Zurik. After playing in Cincinnati and Dayton for almost two years, the dream of John Lair was complete and the performers that he had assembled left for the newly completed Barn in Renfro Valley, near Mt. Vernon, Kentucky. The Renfro Valley Barn Dance radio show had actually begun over WLW in Cincinnati in 1937 but now it was going home to the real Renfro Valley. Lily Mae (banjo and fiddle) and Rosie Ledford (Guitar) were joined by Esther "Violet" Koehler (mandolin player from Indiana; and Evelyn "Daisy" Lange from Ohio to form the Coon Creek Girls. In 1938, the girls recorded for Vocalion in Chicago but national fame was achieved in 1939 when the girls were invited by President Roosevelt to play for the King and Queen of England to show them what the music brought to the colonies by English immigrants had become in the new world. In 1939, now famous, Evelyn and Violet wanted the big city life and left for Dallas with several other performers from Renfro Valley. The Ledford Sisters then added sister Minnie "Black Eyed Susie" to the group. The Coon Creek Girls were now on staff, performing not only their own music, but backing other performers at the Barn Dance until 1957. The Renfro Valley Barn Dance still exists to this day, outfitted with new Air conditioned facilities and the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame just off I 75 near Mt Vernon, Kentucky. Lily Mae raised her family in nearby Berea, Ky and won new fame after performing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1968, travelling to festivals in the US and Canada. Rosie married Red Foley's brother and remained active with the Renfro Valley Barn Dance until her death in 1976. Minnie wrote for the Renfro valley newspaper after retiring from singing and retired in Florida where she died in 1987. John Lair remained active at Renfro Valley until he died at 91.

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