Haunted Honky-Tonk

Haunted Honky-Tonk

Illustration by Otto Steininger

Honky-tonk rule No. 1: No valet parking.

That’s one sure way to tell the difference between Cadillac Ranch, downtown Cincinnati’s spanking-new, country music–themed entertainment experience, and Bobby Mackey’s, the area’s longest-running, dyed-in-the-denim honky-tonk. At Cadillac Ranch, it’s “country” as in country club, with guys in golf shirts and khakis dropping their Beemer and Lexus keys at the valet station before moseying on in. At Mackey’s, patrons in  comfortably broken-in boots and jeans park their own equally broken-in pickups on the huge gravel lot adjacent to the sprawling, single-level club on Licking Pike in Wilder. And on any given Friday or Saturday night, there’s a whole lot of parking going on.

Of course, the biggest difference is something far less tangible. Call it authenticity. In today’s sanitized, meticulously researched entertainment industry, Bobby Mackey’s stands apart from the carefully branded herd. Cadillac Ranch, with its guitar-paneled walls and posters of Kenny Chesney and John Lennon, could be located anywhere from New York to Nagoya. Mackey’s is one of a kind, an un-trendy and unapologetically old-school Kentucky roadhouse, from the sheet-metal urinal trough in its men’s room to the well-worn hardwood dance floor and dirt-cheap Budweiser longnecks. Around here, country music isn’t a marketing trend or the flavor of the week, it’s a way of life.

One thing Mackey’s and Cadillac Ranch do have in common is a young clientele. While there are a few old-timers at the bar and some middle-aged couples on the dance floor, most of the packed house at Mackey’s on a recent Saturday night is younger than you might find at many of the area’s alt-rock clubs. Mackey’s allows under-21s: they’re the ones dutifully putting their names on the sign-in sheet at the cash register.

Tonight, there’s even a bachelorette party. Guests are gathered in a circle in the big room set off to the side of the stage, where 25-year-old bride-to-be Shannon Durante is being egged on by her giggling bridesmaids and girlfriends. It’s a typical pre-nuptial party scene, with the bride under pressure to do something wild—in this case, to climb atop the club’s latest mechanical bull, a state-of-the-art hydraulic model dubbed “El Turbo.” Durante doesn’t need much persuading; a bit unsteadily, she throws a leg over El Turbo and heaves herself up. She’s wearing shorts, a cowboy hat, a white bustier, and a thigh-high garter. El Turbo isn’t even wearing a smile: his head has been sent away for repairs. But this hasn’t interfered with his primary function. The guy running the bull, a heavyset 27-year-old who answers to Billy Bob, starts Durante out slow for a few seconds, then, with a wicked grin, wildly waggles his joystick, engaging a vibrating function that shakes off her cowboy hat and gives this rodeo a definite R rating. No wonder El Turbo is headless.

For Durante, it’s quite an introduction to Mackey’s. The bride-to-be slides off the bull after a 30-second round and, flushed and wobbly, rejoins her friends. “We heard it was fun,” she says. “So we came. And yeah, it’s really fun.”

In case you hadn’t noticed, country—or what passes for it these days—is cool again. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill and Kenny Chesney have been selling more concert tickets than just about every rapper and rock band out there. And it’s not just the younger generation. Veteran Reba McEntire’s new duet album debuted at No. 1—not just on the country charts, but on Billboard’s pop charts. And as the opening of upscale faux-dives like Cadillac Ranch prove, country’s recent boom has not gone unnoticed by the nightclub industry.

Meanwhile, Bobby Mackey’s has been keeping it country since Jimmy Carter was president and disco was the hot sound in pop. For almost 30 years, generations of Northern Kentuckians and Cincinnatians have drunk, danced, and occasionally fought in this bar—so many of us for so long that Bobby Mackey’s now claims the distinction of being the area’s longest-running live-music nightclub. The fact that it has outlasted so many other places, and outlived so many fads, is a tribute to the man behind the name. “We’re celebrating our 30th anniversary next year,” Mackey says during a band break. “We opened on September 8, 1978, and the next year, in October, we got our first mechanical bull.”

The timing was right. In 1980, Urban Cowboy hit movie theaters and John Travolta in a cowboy hat and boots did for country music what John Travolta in a white suit had done for disco. Suddenly giant honky-tonks were everywhere. Mackey got that first mechanical bull from the daddy of them all—Gilley’s in Pasadena, Texas, the club that inspired  the movie.

Back in those days, country was served with a side of ’80s glitz. Urban Cowboy filled country bars with suburban curiosity seekers, and designer boots, jeans, pickup trucks, and turquoise jewelry became yuppie status symbols. But if Mackey’s ever had anything approaching flash, it’s long gone. Today, the place looks like a giant bunkhouse, with lots of worn wood siding. Patrons are a mix of cowboy hats and backwards ball caps—middle-aged folks whose radios have been welded to country stations since George and Tammy reigned and college kids who think Tim and Faith started it all. There are no cliques here and both factions are scattered evenly throughout the club. The bar area tends to be a magnet for the locals, while the dancers ring the stage area, a DJ booth set to the side for line dances during band breaks. Rickety wooden tables and chairs stretch from the dance floor to the back of the music room, and El Turbo stands in the middle of a field of safety padding, the center of attention at stage left.  

While El Turbo has his fans, the club’s real draw is its owner, a singer-guitarist and human jukebox filled with country classics. Tonight he’s running late from a bluegrass show out by Big Bone Lick, and his shock of bushy hair, a sort of Appalachian Afro, is a bit awry as he comes offstage after his first set. As natural and unpretentious as his club, he’s casually dressed in a sport shirt and jeans and carries a round-backed Ovation guitar. It’s an instrument that went out of fashion in the ’80s, but when Bobby Mackey finds something he likes, he sticks with it.

A native Kentuckian born and bred on his home state’s bluegrass and hard country music, he first arrived in Northern Kentucky from his hometown of Concord, in Lewis County, in 1966, a few months after graduating high school. He had a job with the C&O Railway, but music was his first love. “Music was just a part of me as far back as I can remember,” he recalls. “My mom knew some chords on the guitar and I started singing before I could talk. When I was 4 years old, I won a $5 bill singing ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ at a talent contest.”

Country icon Hank Williams Sr. wrote that song, and for Mackey, music started with Hank, so much so that he thought it had ended with him as well. “Hank reached into my soul,” he says. “I remember the day that Hank died. I was very young and listening to the radio and they were playing all Hank Williams songs. My mother was trying to explain to me that he had died and I couldn’t understand that, ’cause I was listening to him on the radio. And then, when it did sink in, I thought that music was over, ’cause he was the only [musician] that I knew.”

When he realized music hadn’t ended, young Bobby knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. At 8, he got a guitar for Christmas and his fate was sealed. He played around Concord during high school and not long after he started his railroad job he was hauling his guitar to weekend jam sessions at area country bars and social halls. By the 1970s he was playing the local club circuit. In 1977, while performing at Julie’s, a Sharonville country bar, two fans from Northern Kentucky, Norman and Jean Stamper, suggested he open a club across the river. The three looked around and found an old place on an industrial stretch of Licking Pike. They became partners, leased a building that had housed a casino in the 1950s, fixed it up, and named the club after Bobby.

According to Mackey, the building once served as a speakeasy during Prohibition. When liquor became legal again in 1933, the site became a casino, first as the Primrose Club and then the Latin Quarter. A tunnel underneath the club may have come in handy during those days, but it dates back even further, to the late 19th century and the site’s earlier incarnation as a slaughterhouse, on which the current structure was built. “They drained the blood into the Licking River through that,” Mackey says. That grisly history is part of the darker side of Bobby Mackey’s. It’s supposed to be haunted—and not by the ghost of Hank Williams.

Mackey didn’t know about the ghosts when he and the Stampers took over the place. But then the club’s first caretaker, Carl Lawson, began reporting bizarre occurrences—lights that had been turned off came on; locked doors were mysterious unlocked; and the jukebox played by itself, spinning records like “The Anniversary Waltz” that weren’t on it.

Now Bobby Mackey’s is “possessed” by several haunting legends. One has to do with Pearl Bryan, a pregnant young woman from Greencastle, Indiana, who was murdered in 1896 by her lover, a Cincinnati dental student named Scott Jackson, and his friend Alonzo Walling. Bryan’s headless body was found in Ft. Thomas, behind what is now the YMCA. Jackson and Walling were arrested, convicted after a sensational trial, and hung. They went to the gallows without revealing where they’d hidden the head; one theory was that they’d put it in the basement of the abandoned slaughterhouse. The theory goes that Bryan, Jackson, Walling, and Bryan’s cousin William Wood, who introduced the couple, haunt Mackey’s, joined by ghosts of those killed during the site’s tenure as a speakeasy and casino. These include one “Johanna,” a daughter of one of the casino operators, whose lover was killed by her gangster father. She then killed her father and herself. Even if it never actually happened, it did inspire Mackey to write and record the song “Johanna.”

When he first opened his club, Mackey had to deal with a more real and recent horror. Just a year earlier, in 1977, Northern Kentucky was the scene of the horrific Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, in which 165 people died. Nightlife became a very tough sell, but eventually Mackey’s fans followed him over from the Ohio side of the river. Then Urban Cowboy hit, and business boomed. During the craze, Mackey even developed a lucrative sideline leasing mechanical bulls to other nightclubs. “At one time I had five bulls,” he says proudly.

Of course, country music didn’t arrive in Cincinnati with John Travolta. The Midwestern Hayride (formerly The Boone County Jamboree) was one of the nation’s biggest live country radio shows of the 1940s and 1950s, and Cincinnati was a capital of country music recording as well, with King Records and other local recording studios drawing the likes of Hank Williams and Flatt & Scruggs. The city had its own homegrown country stars, including Skeeter Davis, of Dry Ridge, and Kenny Price, who became a fixture on Hee Haw and had a national hit with “The Sheriff of Boone County.” In bluegrass, there was Earl Taylor of Norwood, whose talent catapulted him into truly rarefied air; playing with the Stoney Mountain Boys, Taylor was part of the first bluegrass performance at Carnegie Hall.

The country scene was fueled by the region’s working-class Appalachian expatriates, men and women who’d come here in the post–World War II boom for factory jobs along what is now the I-75 corridor. Hungry for a taste of home, they bought the records and helped make Greater Cincinnati a country hotbed. And their children and grandchildren have kept the country bars jumping long after the Urban Cowboy craze cooled. Even so, the multiplatinum world of today’s country music, dominated by the faintly twanging pop-rock of artists like boy band Rascal Flatts and teen queen Taylor Swift is not the same animal Mackey grew up with. “My kind of country doesn’t get played on the radio anymore,” he says ruefully. “The hard-core country—[Merle] Haggard and [George] Jones and people like that—can’t hardly get played.”

That’s because in country, as in the rest of commercial music, demographics rule. Nashville wants to tap the buying power of 18- to 34-year-olds, so acts like Swift are built up. Meanwhile, timeless talents like Haggard, Jones, and dozens of other classic country stars are virtually invisible these days. They’ve all been given artificial expiration dates.

Merle and George may be considered the ghosts of Nashville, but their spirits—and their music—live on at Mackey’s club, where the slogan “Real Country” is defiantly emblazoned on every wall. When Mackey takes the stage with the Big Mac Band, the well-oiled machine that backs him every weekend, the set is packed with certified country classics. There’s a lot of Haggard, including “Big City,” “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” “Ramblin’ Fever,” and “The Running Kind”; Charlie Walker’s “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down”; Dave Dudley’s trucker anthem “Six Days On the Road”; and, dipping all the way back to the 1940s, Johnny & Jack’s “Ashes of Love.”

The last reflects Mackey’s most recent sideline, bluegrass music, as he trades his trademark Ovation for a Martin D-28 guitar to lead a band of top local pickers at area bluegrass festivals. “Ashes of Love” is featured on his most recent album, the bluegrass project Ten Shades of Green. The CD features seven-time International Bluegrass Music Award Female Vocalist Rhonda Vincent singing harmony, as well as some of Nashville’s finest, including her brother Darrin from Ricky Skaggs’s band, Adam Steffey on mandolin, and Michael Cleveland on fiddle.

Putting out a bluegrass album packed with such talent was a coup for Mackey, and he’s been thrilled with the result. “It’s one of the things I’m most proud of in my career,” he says, “second to having a nightclub in Wilder for 30 years.”

Along with playing weekends at his club and doing the bluegrass festival circuit, Mackey is making plans for the anniversary. His “countdown” T-shirts, with the dates “Sept. 8, 1978–Sept. 8, 2008,” should be available next month. He’s also working on a new album at Jordan Recording Studio in Covington, featuring his Big Mac Band—smooth-voiced bassist Ernie Vaughn, nationally revered pedal steel master Chuck Rich, versatile guitarist Ernie Lainhart, and rock-solid drummer Willie Brown. The songs will all be country classics from Haggard, Conway Twitty, Johnny Paycheck, and Buck Owens, Mackey’s second-place idol—after Hank, of course.

For Mackey, “Real Country” is more than a marketing slogan; it’s his life’s mission. As he nears 60, he says that music has just as powerful a hold on him as when it first grabbed him back in his days as Lewis County’s yodeling toddler. “It has heart and soul. It says something,” he says. “It just reaches inside you. It never gets old.”

Originally published in the December 2007 issue.

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