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Down in the Valley: Visiting the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum

By Kathy Riley Williams


John Lair lies buried behind a sturdy stone wall in a tiny cemetery in the sleepy hillside hamlet of Mount Vernon, Kentucky. The flat granite stone covering his Rockcastle County grave lauds a man who did his hometown proud. Today, John Lair is still remembered for introducing Kentucky’s musicians and singers to the larger world.  Twenty years after his death, Lair’s legacy is alive in well in the form of the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum.  

Located in Renfro Valley, the “Country Music Capital of Kentucky,” the museum is situated one mile down the hill from Mount Vernon. Although Kentucky is best-known for its contributions to country and bluegrass, music fans of all stripes roam the premises of the museum, paying homage to singers as diverse as Dwight Yoakum, Rosemary Clooney, and Backstreet Boys boy Brian Littrell.  

The museum, a converted stone-and-timber horse stable, is part of the original John Lair estate. It houses dozens of interesting artifacts. Tom T. Hall’s Kentucky colonel suit is dapperly displayed. The Osborne Brothers’ banjo seems to send out a faint hum of Rocky Top. A purple sequined gown once worn by Loretta Lynn, the queen of Kentucky music makers, takes center stage in a Plexiglass display case. Other costume items on display include the custom-made leather jacket John Michael Montgomery wore in his “Rope the Moon” video – oh, and let’s not forget swivel-hipped Dwight Yoakum’s raggedy, skin-tight jeans. 

The Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum does not limit itself to singers, though. Kentucky songwriters, including Jerry Chesnut and Kendall Hayes, are honored. Gold records earned by Chenut, who wrote Travis Tritt’s hit “T-R-O-U-B-L-E” and Johnny Cash’s “Oney,” and Kendall Hayes, author of LeRoy Van Dyke’s 1961 hit “Walk on By,” are displayed on the walls of the museum.  

The museum takes pains to preserve seldom remembered facts of Kentucky’s musical heritage. Visitors are given the opportunity to remember Todd Duncan, the first African American to sing a lead role with the New York City Opera. Duncan gained national recognition when he sang in George Gershwin’s 1935 production of Porgy and Bess.   

Many of the instrumental artifacts on display provide insight into America’s musical heritage. Guitarists will want to take a look-see at Merle Travis’s custom-made Gibson Super 400. The GS-400 is one of the instruments on which Travis perfected his culturally mythologized thumb-picking playing style.  

Banjo pickers may be tempted to spend the entire visit huddled into one corner of the museum. Banjos of various shapes, sizes and ages are on display next to a surprisingly interesting history of the instrument, from its birth as a traditional African instrument, to its contemporary glory days as the chosen instrument of Kentucky bluegrass maestro Ricky Skaggs.  

Should the performing bug bite while you’re visiting the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum, a museum staffer will help you record your very own CD. Can Nashville lights be far behind?  

Of course, the museum highlights John Lair’s role in leading Kentucky country music into mainstream American culture. Lair’s influence began when he was station program manager at WLS in Chicago in the mid-1920s and continued into the 1930s, when he went to work at Cincinnati’s WLW. Lair introduced listeners to the Kentucky Mountain Boy, Bradley Kincaid, as well as to Renfro Valley natives, the Cumberland Ridge Runners.  

Lair’s contributions to country music were cemented when he began broadcasting his own program from Renfro Valley in 1939. For many years, Lair’s voice floated on radio waves across the hillsides, creeks and valleys of Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and Indiana every Saturday night. “This is the Renfro Valley Barn Dance,” he would say, “Coming to you direct from a big barn in Renfro Valley, Kentucky – the first and only barn dance on the air presented by the actual residents of an actual community.”  

An important aside: Country music junkies will not want to miss a visit to The Country Music Store, located near the museum on the grounds of the Renfro Valley complex. You have my word: It’s one of the best country music stores anywhere – period. Bring your piggy bank.

For more information about the Kentucky Music Museum and Hall of Fame, contact:
On the web:
Phone (toll free): 1-877-356-3263
For more information about Renfro Valley, including its popular Christmas in the Country, or for an up-to-date listing of visiting country music performers, contact:
On the web:
Phone: 1-800-765-7464




© 2003, Kathy Riley Williams, All Rights Reserved