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Biography

The Coon Creek Girls were a popular all-girl "string band" in the Appalachian style of folk music (a precursor of country music) which began in the mid-1930s. Created (and named) by John Lair for his Renfro Valley Barn Dance show, the band originally consisted of sisters Lily May and Rosie Ledford (from Powell County, Kentucky) along with Esther "Violet" Koehler (from Indiana) and Evelyn "Daisey" Lange (from Ohio).

A fixture on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance for over fifteen years, the Coon Creek Girls developed into one of the best known all-women string bands in early Country music. Whereas many other women performers of the 1930’s tended toward sentimental or even cowboy songs (e.g. Patsy Montana, the Girls of the Golden West and the Three Little Maids), the Coon Creek Girls were distinctive, because they all played their own instruments, and because they used a repertoire of southern mountain tunes. When Eleanor Roosevelt asked them to play in Washington, D.C. for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1939, she chose them knowing that they reflected an authentic mountain style filtered through their own remarkable talent. Though the personnel of the Coon Creek Girls varied over the years, the original cornerstone of the group was the remarkably talented, Lily May Ledford. She was born in a beautiful but remote section of Powell County in eastern Kentucky, called Big River Gorge. The seventh child of a family of ten boys and four girls, she grew up on a tenant farm, enriched by the string band music her own family made. By the time she was a teenager, she had joined her sister Rosie and brother Cayen in a band called the Red River Ramblers, which played for local square dances. Lily May learned both fiddle and banjo, picking up repertoire from her family, especially her brother Kelly. He had absorbed banjo tunes and styles while working in the mines of Pike County. In 1936, the Ramblers auditioned for one of the WLS talent scouts who routinely made the rounds in the upland South, and Lily May was chosen to come to Chicago and appear on the WLS Barn Dance. There she met entrepreneur announcer John Lair, who was fascinated with her and signed her to a five-year personal management contract. For a time, she was a featured soloist on the Barn Dance, and soon became so popular that Stand By!, the WLS magazine, even ran a comic strip about her. When Lair moved his cast to Cincinnati, and then to Renfro Valley, he decided to form an all-girl string band around Lily May, and the Coon Creek Girls were born. Originally, the quartet consisted of Lily May, her sister Rosie, and two new musicians from the Chicago area, "Daisy" Lange and "Violet" Koehler. By design, all the girls were given the stage names of flowers, and used as their theme tune, the old song, You’re a Flower Blooming in the Wildwood. They made their radio and live debut on October 9, 1937 in a show from the Cincinnati Music Hall. The girls were an immediate hit on the new Renfro Valley Barn Dance, and in 1938, they recorded what would become their only major label session, for Vocalion (ARC). They did traditional songs like Little Birdie and Pretty Polly and uptempo efforts like Banjo Pickin’ Girl and Sowing On The Mountain. However, their real success was on radio, not records, and in touring with Lair’s troupes, as they moved around the South and Midwest. The band even turned down an offer from the Grand Ole Opry, because they could make far more money with Lair. By 1939, though, the original quartet split up, with Koehler and Lange leaving for other work with the Callahan Brothers’ Blue Ridge Mountain Folk in Dallas. A third Ledford sister, Minnie, replaced them, under the name "Black Eyed Susan." This trio, or one with other performers from Renfro Valley, occasionally replacing one of the members, continued on at Renfro Valley. By
1957, the Coon Creek Girls disbanded to riase their families, doing occasional recordings for the local Redbird label, and for Capitol. Lily May Ledford pursued a solo career in later years, recording under her own name for Voyager and with a "comeback" band for County. She wrote a delightful autobiography, Coon Creek Girl in 1980 and passed away in 1985. Her son, J.P. Pennington is a popular songwriter who helped to found the Pop-Country group, Exile. Violet played for a while on the Boone County Jamboree, and eventually married one of Lily May’s brothers and settled in Berea, Kentucky. Daisy married and settled in Indiana, retiring from music, but often playing at fiddling contests. A modern Bluegrass band, the New Coon Creek Girls was formed in the 1980’s and appeared on records and at numerous festivals.

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