Once in a while I get in the mood for the kind of music that has echoed through the heartland for generations. I can’t say that I’ve always been a fan of it and for that matter a lot of it was really before my time, but the sound is timeless and it has the power to evoke thoughts of a simpler era.
The original Coon Creek Girls, a country string band that was very popular for a period of time beginning in the 1930s, began to come together when Kentucky native Lily May Ledford caught the attention of John Lair while she was singing on Chicago’s WLS Barn Dance radio show. Lair, who was a multi-talented singer/songwriter in his own right, was handling the announcing duties for the show, and when he caught Lily May’s act an idea was born.
Lily May had grown up as the daughter of Kentucky tenant farmers, but she’d learned to play fiddle, guitar, and banjo and was appearing in local shows with her siblings while still in her teens. By the time she showed up in Chicago she was all grown and had also gained a little sophistication, but Lair encouraged her to build her act as the personification of an old-fashioned country girl, and she soon became a popular star on the show.
After a couple of years, Lair relocated to Cincinnati and convinced Lily May to become part of a new all-girl string band to be known as the Coon Creek Girls. Joining her were her sister Rose, Evelyn “Daisy” Lange, and Ester “Violet” Koehler. It didn’t take long for the foursome to become favorites on local radio and to make some records too. The girls also helped Lair build up what would become a very successful country music venue named for his home area, the Renfro Valley of Kentucky. (In subsequent years a lot of country stars would appear on its stage.)
The Coon Creek Girls were a regular attraction on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance radio show for the next 15 years, although there would be various changes in personnel. (Judging by the video below, even dropping to just a trio at one time.) Eventually things wound down for the originals, but in 1979 Lair created the New Coon Creek Girls, and even though he died in 1985 (as did Lily May Ledford, long retired by then) the group continued into the new millennium.