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Linda Lou Martin
Born:  March 17, 1926
Renfro Valley Barn Dance

In 1943 a young fiddler from Indianapolis, Indiana, named Linda Lou had received a telegram from John Lair offering her a job at Renfro Valley. Shortly after taking the job she went out to one of the tent shows where she met Emory Martin. Before the year was over Linda Lou and Emory were married, living two miles from Renfro Valley at Mt. Vernon, Kentucky, and working on the Barn Dance and other stage and radio shows. They fit in perfectly with the image of the Renfro Valley Barn Dance that John Lair worked hard to project—a show produced in a real community featuring performances by the actual residents of the community.

Linda Lou Martin was born Wanda Arnold, a few miles from Gate City, Virginia. During the Depression she moved with her family to Indianapolis, where she grew up. "My family liked country music," she says, and she heard it so much on the radio and phonograph records that she learned to like it also.

Linda's musical education began with the Hawaiian guitar: "I had an older sister who started taking Hawaiian guitar lessons. I was about ten. She came home [from her lesson] and sat down and started practicing, and I'd sit there and watch her. She'd show me what she learned. So I learned right along with her. Then I started taking lessons, too. When I was in about the eighth grade I started taking violin lessons at school. I went on to high school and played [the violin] in the orchestra. I'd come home and try to learn to play a breakdown. One day between classes I was fiddling around and played a breakdown and the instructor caught me. He laughed and said, Well, you're certainly getting a broad experience.'"

Thanks to a father who was active in politics Linda got a lot of early experience playing before an audience. "My dad was a Republican," she says. "He went to every convention and rally, and he took me with him to play for them." In addition, she played for Shriners' meetings and in church.

Linda landed her first professional job as a result of an amateur contest put on by John Lair at the high school in Mt. Vernon, Kentucky. "I didn't win the contest," Linda recalls, "but Mr. Lair talked to me after [the program]. He asked me how long I had been playing and wanted to know all about me. Right after that, in 1941, I got a telegram from him telling me that Aunt Hattie was going to be taking a show to Atlanta. She was going to be starting an all-girl band, and he offered me a job with her. I was 15 at the time."

Aunt Hattie, whose real name was Ricca Hughes, had been working as a comedian on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, replacing, according to Linda, another female Barn Dance comedian, A'nt ldy, who had died. Aunt Hattie had also worked on the WSB Barn Dance in Atlanta. Linda met Aunt Hattie in Renfro Valley and went with her to Atlanta where they worked on radio station WGST. In the meantime, Lair and Aunt Hattie had decided on the name Linda Lou for the latest member of the all girl band. Other members of Aunt Hattie's troupe, at one time or another, were Elsie /ones; accordionist Jane Carrier (also known to radio listeners in Tennessee and Kentucky as Little Sister Lillie]; and former Renfro Valley performers Bertha Amburgey and her sister Opal Amburgey [also known as Mattie O'Neil and Jean Chappel].

Constance Keith, a writer for a country music magazine, visited Atlanta in December of 1941 and wrote the following report on Aunt Hattie's act:

"At 6 a.m. WGST opens with Aunt Hattie and her Folks. Aunt Hattie is a veteran in entertainment having formerly starred on WSB, and was also with the Renfro Valley Show for some time. Aunt Hattie now has a fine all-girl band that can really hand out the music, all the way from the real old-time square dance hoe-downs right down to the sweetest duets and solos. Bonnie Jones, smallest member, plays the guitar and sings the old-fashioned hymns. She has a rather husky voice and really puts them over. Ruby Wells plays the bass fiddle and is the yodeler of the act. Wanda Arnold, as Little Linda Lou, is the little girl who handles the fiddling, about the best we've heard for girl fiddlers. Linda also plays sweet music on the steel guitar and joins with Ruby on some swell duets. The girls are comparatively new on the station but they tell me that their mail is growing steadily and that all show dates are fine. Aunt Hattie herself is MC on both stage and radio shows and does comedy."

"We were on WGST about a year," Linda recalls, "and played bookings all over Georgia and some in Florida. I played steel guitar, and we sung trios. I played the banjo some, but I never did count myself much of a banjo player." In 1942 the band began to break up, and Linda returned to Indianapolis. "WIBC, a fairly new radio station in Indianapolis had started a barn dance called the WIBC Jamboree," she says, "and I got a job there. I played fiddle, and steel, and sang. We had programs during the day. They had a program at five o'clock in the morning with the whole group, a program at noon with the whole group, and the Saturday night barn dance. We would go out and play bookings every [other] night. 'here were two other girls up there called the Blue Mountain Girls, a girl duet [Virginia Sutton and Bernice Scott, who later joined the Renfro Valley cast]. The manager talked to us one day, and asked us to form a Coon Creek Girls-type band. One girl played a guitar, one was learning to play bass, and I had a fiddle and banjo and steel. So they put us on a program together as Linda Lou's Sunshine Special. I stayed up there until 1943 when Mr. Lair sent me a telegram and offered me a job."

Activity at Renfro Valley, was at its peak when Linda signed on: "Mr. Lair had two big tent shows out all the time [in the summers]. In the winter time we'd play auditoriums and theaters. Emory and I were on the road one year straight." Back in the Valley, Linda replaced Jerry Byrd on steel guitar playing Take Me Bark to Renfro Valley, the theme for the Sunday Morning Gatherin'. In addition she played fiddle on the Barn Dance and worked as one of the Coon Creek Girls."

After 26 years in show business, Emory Martin, in 1958, had grown weary of life on the road: "I sold my banjo and quit. But it didn't take me long to find out that people weren't going to hire me, so I went to work for myself. I ran a service station for 14 years right there in Renfro Valley. It was a Gulf station located where the Renfro Valley ticket office is now."

Linda decided to call it quits in 1958, too. She went back to school, studied to be a practical nurse, and has spent the time since working in hospitals. The Martins still make their home in Mt. Vernon, Kentucky, which is also home to their only child, Roy Arnold, who is a mortician and co-owner of a Mt. Vernon funeral home. Linda and Emory make occasional appearances on stage at Renfro Valley and are usually present for the annual reunion of former Renfro Valley entertainers. Linda is also a frequent performer at the annual Renfro Valley Fiddlers' Festival.

Linda has been busy lately writing and publishing a biography of Emory called One Armed Banjo Player, Emory Martin: Early Years of Country Music; with Emory Martin, which covers his life and career in considerable detail. Emory Martin fans an also learn about this well-known one-banjo player by visiting the Renfro galley Museum where he is featured in one of the exhibits devoted to former Renfro Valley entertainers.

Click here for Part One of this story - Emory Martin

Credits & Sources

  • Adapted from the article, "Emory & Linda Lou Martin, Sweethearts of Renfro Valley"; By Wayne W. Daniel; Originally published in Old Time Country, Fall 1992; Used by permission of author. Wayne W. Daniel is a retired college professor engaged in research and writing in the field of country music history. He is the author of the book "PICKIN' ON PEACHTREE: A HISTORY OF COUNTRY MUSIC IN ATLANTA, GEORGIA" published by the University of Illinois Press.

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