This one particular chilly November weekend found my wife Missy and I heading to the Cincinnati/Covington Kentucky region. We were on our way to Bob and Rita Small’s beautiful home in Taylor Mill for some promo work for our festival, Mansfield Jamfest, and for Sammy Karr and Rick Greene’s Samjam festival. Rita and Tim Strong’s radio show, Bluegrass in the Valley, is a staple in the tri-state area and beyond.
The Cincinnati area has a deep, rich history in bluegrass music. From the historic King records, to area churches and local parks where many of the photo shoots were done at the label for such legends as the Stanley Brothers, Charlie Moore and Bill Napier, and Reno and Smiley. Bluegrass was booming here in the ’60s and ’70s, from radio, local jam sessions, local watering holes, and one particular place that has spiked my interest…. The Ken Mill Tavern. I have a deep love for the music and history of the Stanley Brothers, and Ralph after Carter’s passing. With the brothers having such a presence in the Cincinnati are, I figured we would do some stone turning while we were here.
The Ken Mill Tavern was a hot spot for live bluegrass music in Cincinnati. The name comes from the location of the establishment, it sits at the corner of Kenton and McMillan streets in the Walnut Hills district. The tavern had bluegrass 7 days a week during the ’60s, with Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys serving as the house band for a number of years. On the weekends, it was a pick up date for bands coming through the area. Many musicians graced the Ken Mill. The Stanley Brothers, Jim McCall, Vernon Mcyntire, Aubrey and Jerry Holt, Paul Mullins, Benny Birchfield, Walter Hensley, Josh Graves, and many others. The tavern was also a drop off spot for moonshine coming into Ohio from Kentucky. Paul “Moon” Mullins was quoted as saying one time that, “there was enough moonshine in the Ken Mill to get a herd of Circus elephants drunk.”
It’s in very rough shape today, and in a questionable part of town. We stopped here last year to get some pictures, but it was late at night and we were approached by some shaky characters, so we thought it best to leave and come back at a later date.
There are so many stories from the tavern, many not suitable for this article, but I focused this story on rumors that I had heard through the years related to the Stanleys. Many times I had heard that this was the place Larry Sparks had gotten his famous D-28, and also the place where Ralph had met his wife Jimmi. These stories turned out to be more than rumors, they were truths.
Let’s start with one of the most distinguishable and famous instruments in bluegrass, the Sparks guitar.
The Ken Mill was owned by Stu and Ann Salmons. One weekend in 1967 when passing through, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain boys stopped at the tavern to play a show and to pick up a few dollars on the way to Michigan. Stu had a 1954 D-28 he kept in the bar as a house guitar for local musicians to play. He had decided to sell the guitar the weekend Ralph and the boys were there. As fate would have it, a marriage was made that weekend that would prove to be legendary. I had the great privilege of talking to Larry on the phone for about an hour and picking his brain about everything I could think to ask.
The guitar is a 1954 D-28, and I asked Larry if the same pick guard was on it when he bought it. It was. A fellow in Ohio by the name of Happ Hammond had put it on the guitar years earlier, and had also put one on Jimmy Skinner’s guitar. I had asked Ralph about the Ken Mill back in the ’80s, and Larry getting his guitar there was a fond memory. Stu was asking $300 for the guitar, back then a fairly large sum of money. Curly Ray Cline loaned Larry the money until they got home. At the time, Larry was playing Carter Stanley’s famous D-28 with the large pick guard while on the road with Ralph.
As we talked, Larry said he has always use heavy gauge strings on the guitar, “the medium ones just cut into my fingers too much.” It seemed to me that heavy gauge strings would pull the bridge up. Martin’s come with a burned stamp inside that warn against it. Larry told me in 1979 that the bridge had started pulling up on it. He had a friend who had gotten some aircraft aluminium from the Wright Patterson air force base in Dayton. They made a bridge plate and pinned the saddle and it remains there to this day.
Another memorable story from the Ken Mill happened on December 13, 1961. The Stanley Brothers were playing that night. While on stage, Ralph noticed what he described as a “a woman like I’ve never seen before.” Her name was Jimmi Crabtree, and Ralph Stanley said he spent the whole night staring a hole through her. Yes, the tiny little bar in Cincinnati is where Ralph met his future wife. Ralph recalled being so love struck he was forgetting the words to songs that night. He stated that on the way home, he kept going on and on about his new interest. Carter told him that things would work out, and he and Jimmi would one day be together. Ralph recalled thinking to himself, “this is the man that wrote How Mountain Girls Can Love, he knows a thing or two in that department.”
In the early ’70s, as the neighborhood deteriorated, the tavern closed its doors. A few years later, it was reopened as a biker bar and renamed Satan’s Den under new ownership.
I have included some pictures of various photo spots that King records had used for album covers. Many thanks to Dwight MCcall, Tony Holt, Gary Reid, and Larry Sparks for their time in chatting with me.
The Ken Mill Tavern is another place, lost in time, boarded up, but at one time it served as an important place for our great music. If your ever in the Walnut Hills district of Cincinnati, at the corner of Kenton and McMillman streets, an old brick building still stands, that once was the Ken Mill Tavern.
Just dont go at night.