John Lair, a native of Kentucky, began his musical career while working as an insurance company claims adjuster in Chicago in the late 1920s, where he became interested in radio. He was able to find work for early Kentucky country music performers such as Red Foley and the duo of Carl and Harty on the WLS National Barn Dance and eventually was employed by WLS as producer, MC, and Music Librarian. He became interested in discovering the real life events upon which old songs were based. In the process he began accumulating a large sheet music collection and gained a reputation as an authority on folk music. He wrote songs of his own as well, including "Take Me Back to Renfro Valley," "Freight Train Blues," "Only One Step More," and "The Man Who Comes Around."
He founded the Renfro Valley Barn Dance in 1937 in Ohio. For many years the Barn Dance was home to acts such as Homer And Jethro and Old Joe Clark as well as groups and artists managed by Lair himself.