Bluegrass returns to the Red Slipper Lounge in Lexington

February 28-29, 2020 will see the return of bluegrass to the former home of The Red Slipper Lounge in Lexington, Kentucky. A weekend of bluegrass in the bluegrass.

The name Red Slipper Lounge may not strike a ring with some folks, but as many remember, it was home to JD Crowe & the Kentucky Mountain Boys, and later, JD Crowe & the New South for a number of years. Two powerhouse festivals in southern Ohio and northern Kentucky, SamJam and Rudyfest, have teamed up to bring bluegrass back to the former home of the Red Slipper. SamJam’s Sammy Karr’s dad, Sam Karr Sr., was a high school basketball coach in Boone County, and his assistant was Al Taylor, mandolinist Earl Taylor’s cousin. Countless Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights the two best friends would drive from Florence to Lexington, to sit and listen to JD Crowe and the New South. Thus comes the brainchild for the 2020 weekend show.

Lets take a look at some history of the Red Slipper…

Sometime in the early summer of 1968, hotel mogul Roy Winegardner approached JD about possibly playing bluegrass a few nights at the Holiday Inn in Lexington. Roy had 3 different hotels, 1 in Lexington, and 2 on the outskirts. The Holiday Inn in Lexington was the biggest and most elegant. There was a lounge in the hotel called the Red Slipper. It was dark, mirrored, with leather chairs and booths throughout.

I had the privilege to talk to JD on the phone about his time there. “I wasn’t sure it would work out. I was a little skeptical really. I knew that, at that time, The Holiday Inn drew a pretty high class crowd and I didn’t know if they would take to bluegrass.” JD and Roy worked out a deal, and in August of 1968 JD Crowe & the Kentucky Mountain Boys began a weekend gig at the Red Slipper. The band’s first night was on a Thursday, and it was a packed house. Friday and Saturday, it was standing room only. After 6 months, Roy approached JD about going to 5 nights a week. At the time, JD and Doyle Lawson were working at Wilson Industrial Supply in Lexington, and unsure about quitting a day job to play music. The decision to take the gig would pave history in bluegrass music. Doyle says, “I quit my day job, and never went back to a day job.”

In early 1971, Tony Rice and his uncle Frank Poindexter made the trip to the Red Slipper Lounge. This was the first time Tony had seen JD Crowe and the band perform. Tony recalled never hearing such tight vocals and such drive in a band before. Rice joined JD Crowe’s band Labor Day weekend of 1971. The band was transforming, bringing in new material and doing some major experimenting.

I asked JD where Tony lived while they were in Lexington. He said that Tony had an apartment in town, and that they would often get done at the Red Slipper and go to Tony’s apartment and jam for hours. In Ricky Skaggs’ book, The Kentucky Traveler, he recalls the smoke in the Red Slipper being so thick you could cut it with a knife, and the stench on his clothes being overwhelming when he got home.

A lot of the crowd at the Red Slipper consisted of University of Kentucky students. JD recalled a few nights of trouble in the bar, but most of the time it was an attentive audience. Sometimes people would come in from all over and stay the weekend just to watch JD and the boys. One thing that struck me while I was working on this article, The Red Slipper may have very well been the practice ground for the iconic album Rounder-0044.

The hotel is now managed by Clarion. Over the years things have changed. I called the Clarion in the hope that I could find an employee that had been there for a number of years, and had some recollections. I got a hold of a young lady who had been there since 1994, Melissa. Sometime in the late ’70s the lounge was remodeled and renamed LA Oliver’s. Behind the bar, they installed a large mirror with etchings of JD, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, and Bill Monroe. I asked if it was still there, and she said in the late ’80s they remodeled again, and to her recollection, one of Crowe’s old band members asked for it, and they gave it to him. After it was LA Oliver’s, it was called Mandolins Bar and Grille. It is now The Sports Page Bourbon Bar and Grill. It is set for remodeling, and Melissa told me that they are hoping by February to have it complete. Its new name will be The Sadona Taphouse. If you’re attending in February and venture into the Taphouse, you will be standing where the Red Slipper Lounge once was, and where bluegrass history was made.

For information on Bluegrass in the Bluegrass February 28-29, 2020 contact Sammy Karr at 812-699-0962 or visit the SamJam or RudyFest web site.