They’ve performed bluegrass in New York City’s Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, Nashville’s The Grand Old Opry, and Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. They also have performed with Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
But the celebration The McLain Family Band is having this week is about more than all the fabulous venues it has played.
The performance at the “WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour” in Berea marks the 50th anniversary of the band, and member Ruth McLain sees it as a sort of a homecoming.
The band, formed in 1968 by Raymond K. McLain, included his children Raymond, Alice, Ruth, Nancy Ann and Michael. Raymond K. McLain died in 2003.
The band recorded more than a dozen albums on its own label, Country Life Records.
On Thursday, all five of the siblings and their spouses, who have played with the group at various times, will perform in their hometown, kicking off the band’s anniversary.
“It’s extra fun because we love being together and love being in Berea,” Ruth McLain said.
The family band performed weekly on WYH8, a local news television station in Hazard, for two years starting in 1968. They never missed a show even during flooding, the night after their house burned down or when they had to drive back from Missouri during a tour.
“Father always said, ‘No matter what you did yesterday or tomorrow, today is the most important,’” Ruth McLain said. “Every show is a highlight. It doesn’t have to be a big theater to be important.”
Raymond W. McLain said, “Daddy believed it was how deeply you connected with people, rather than how many people where there.”
Raymond K. McLain was director of the Hindman Settlement School. He expanded the school’s folk arts program and created the first university-level course in bluegrass music. He had previously studied folk music at Harvard and the University of North Carolina.
Three of his children also became educators. Raymond W. McLain founded the first college degree in bluegrass, old-time and country music at East Tennessee State University, before he became the director of the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State University.
Ruth McLain is a professor at the traditional music center, where she has taught the bass and a songwriting class, and has led several student ensembles. Alice McLain is a teacher in Berea, and her husband, Al White, teaches music at Berea College.
“It is very neat that so many of us are doing the same kind of thing,” Ruth McLain said of her father’s legacy. “It’s respect not only for the history (of traditional music) but respect for the future.”
That kind of dedication can be seen during many of the band’s performances. In the 1980s, when the band was in full touring mode, the family would perform at more than 250 shows a year, traveling to Alaska, California and more than 80 countries.
“We only missed one show, and that was in Alaska,” Ruth McLain said. “You could only get into these towns by plane, and the plane was weathered in.”
Over the past 50 years, the McLain Family Band has in local music gatherings, including the Festival at Bighill.
“There have been so many landmarks, some of the experiences do seem dreamlike,” Raymond W. McLain said. “But what really stands out is the comfortable feeling of playing the music that we love with the people that we like.”
Raymond W. McLain said of his father: “I can see him smiling, I feel like he is with us. I’m so glad we get to do this for ourselves, but even more glad we get to do this for our dad. He’s so much in every part of this and always has been.”
The band has taken occasional hiatuses from recording and touring, but the siblings have never lost their love of traditional mountain music or the people who also love it.
Michael Johnathon, the host of “WoodSongs,” said that when he first moved to Kentucky, he learned to play the banjo by watching lessons on KET instructed by Raymond W. McLain.
Joining The McLain Family Band taping is Country Current, the U.S. Navy bluegrass band with two former students of Raymond W. McLain, and 17-year-old Parker Hastings, the national thumb-picking champion.
Jonathan said he’s pleased to host the celebration.
“Considering what they mean to Kentucky music, in the backyard of where first they launched it in, I’m honored to be here,” Johnathon said.
The show will begin at 7 p.m., and WEKU will broadcast the McLain portion on 88.9 FM.