One of the most famous all-female string bands in country, the Coon Creek Girls were also among the first female groups to play their own instruments and focus on authentic mountain music, instead of sentimental and cowboy songs.
The founding member of the long-lived group was Lily May Ledford. Born in Pilot, KY, she was the daughter of poor tenant farmers who frequently played string band music; consequently, Lily May learned how to play guitar and fiddle as a child. By the time she was an adolescent, she had formed the Red River Ramblers with her sister, Rose, and her brother, Cayen, and the group began playing local square dances. The Ramblers auditioned for talent scouts in 1935, and Lily May was chosen to appear on WLS Chicago's Barn Dance. During her performance, she caught the attention of announcer John Lair, who became her manager; in the process, he landed her a regular spot on the Barn Dance, where she became so popular that the station's magazine based a comic strip on her.
Following its success in Chicago, Lair moved the show to Cincinnati and then to Renfro Valley, were he decided to base an all-female string band around Lily May. The original Coon Creek Girls were comprised of Lily May, her sister Rosie, Evelyn "Daisy" Lange, and Ester "Violet" Koehler. On October 9, 1937, they made their live radio debut from Cincinnati Music Hall. Shortly after their debut, the group began appearing on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance; they would sing on the program for the next 15 years. In 1938, the Coon Creek Girls cut their first session, although their records, which featured traditional mountain songs, never proved as popular as their radio performances. In 1939, the original group disbanded when Koehler and Lange left to go work with the Callahan Brothers' Blue Ridge Mountain Folk in Dallas. Lily May and Rosie were then joined by their younger sister, Minnie. The Coon Creek Girls kept performing together in various incarnations until 1957.
After the group broke up, Lily May launched her own solo career. In 1980 she published her autobiography, Coon Creek Girl. In 1985, Ledford died. Ester Koehler spent time in the Boone County Jamboree and eventually married one of Lily May's brothers. Evelyn Lange married and moved to Indiana, where she sometimes competed in fiddle contests. During the 1980s, John Lair created the New Coon Creek Girls to appear on a revival of his old radio show. The group included the banjo of Vicki Simmons, guitarist/vocalist Dale Ann Bradley, banjoist Ramona Church Taylor, and fiddler Katy Kinn. Simmons actually learned her instrument from original Coon Creek Girl Lily May, linking the two groups' fine tradition of breaking down gender barriers while bringing up listeners' spirits. ~ Johnny Loftus