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Tarbell tells tales of music, bars and days gone

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Posted at 6:00 AM, Dec 17, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-17 06:00:32-05

A picture is worth a thousand words. Here at WCPO Insider we are profiling some prominent local residents and moments in their past by looking at a memorable photograph and then having the person tell us the story behind that photo.

CINCINNATI -- Jim Tarbell began hanging out in taverns at age 16, but not in his Hyde Park neighborhood where teenage boys like him would get kicked out of bars.

The place to go in the late 1950s was Vine Street between Central Parkway and 15th Street in Over-the-Rhine, where a lot of hillbilly and rockabilly music was performed live in places such as the Swing Bar, the Arrow Café, the Silver Dollar, Jeanne’s and Pappy’s. 

It was there that the future urban pioneer, rock concert promoter, restaurateur and Cincinnati politician developed an interest in old-timey tunes. The love for bluegrass that has sustained him over the remainder of his 73 years was seeded in a bar he and his buddies frequented called Ken-Mill Café in Walnut Hills. That’s where he first heard the Stoney Mountain Band. 

“Bluegrass was not in our vocabulary in Hyde Park, but they had a great effect on me,” Tarbell said of the band. 

That effect is obvious in this Throwback Thursday photograph that Tarbell, who lives in Pendleton with his ceramicist wife Brenda, chose to share. You can’t hear it, but there was bluegrass music playing at Aunt Maudie’s Country Garden that night, and it moved a then heavily bearded Tarbell (he lost his hair in the 1980s due to the autoimmune disease alopecia) to tip his cap in the way he tips it to this very day. 

Here’s Tarbell’s back-story of the approximately 44-year-old photograph. It’s as concise as we could get him to tell it. 

Tarbell: The Terrace Café was this little place (about 1,600 square feet) at 12th and Main streets in Over-the-Rhine. Lou Ukelson – he’s the guy that founded Jewel Records and recorded gospel, bluegrass and country – took it over and changed its name to Aunt Maudie’s Country Garden. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, every single noteworthy bluegrass band played at that little place: Ralph Stanley, the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, Quicksilver, Seldom Scene, Jimmy Martin. You name them, they played there. 

“Lou had some caricaturist, a cartoonist, paint folksy renditions of a family of musicians on the walls. Hence the name Aunt Maudie’s Country Garden. Nobody knew who Aunt Maudie was, but it was one of my favorite haunts. It had great music, was very affordable (50 cents for a Mason jar of Hudepohl beer), and was just a wonderful place. 

I didn’t know about this photo. It was around 1971, when I’d moved into Over-the-Rhine over by Music Hall and Washington Park. Fast forward to 1976 when I took over Arnold’s Bar and Grill. (Professional photographer) Cal Kowal, whom I’d met over the years at places like Aunt Maudie’s, walked in (to Arnold’s) one day with this photo, which I didn’t know existed. It was a black and white photo personally hand-colored by Cal. And he gave it to me and said, “Congrats on your new saloon.” 

i like it because it’s the first in a series of me tipping my hat. I love the spirit of tipping my hat. And that beard was a big part of my persona for 25 years. I really like the beard. I like the fact that a friend of mine, Cal, did the photo and the fact that it was a secret for five or six years. I like the fact that it shows Aunt Maudie’s on the wall. And that hat – it was handmade by a friend of mine I knew when we started a club of people living on Court Street that we called the Court Street Irregulars. So much of this photo is my current persona in that I wear a hat, and more often than that, I wear a vest. 

I didn’t want to look at (the photo) all the time (on the wall at Arnold’s), so I put it in the ladies room. I thought it’d be nice for them to be able to look at the nice proprietor who was taking care of them. Every once in a while, this photo would disappear. I thought some rascal would hide it in a coat, sneak it out and then bring it back later. How would she get away with that? Well, once when I was doing some remodeling (of the ladies room), I discovered this trap door in the ceiling that was part of an old heating duct. This person must have figured out how to open it, stick the photo up there for a while and then bring it back down.

So you’re working to find tenants for the old commercial buildings next to what was Tower Place Mall on Fourth Street. What would you really like to be doing?

Tarbell: I’ve been down here since 1971, and it has been an agony-ecstasy duel. The ecstasy has been the fact that there are so many wonderful aspects of Cincinnati and its history and its culture. I found from the beginning a feeling of community in the center city: Over-the-Rhine, Downtown, the West End. That’s what has kept me focused here. 

The agony is seeing so many things not finished, undone or destroyed. What I call “the abandonment of the American city” has been very depressing for me, and I want to address that, help repair it. My current job of being a “building whisperer” (that is, a person who “listens” to buildings and finds them appropriate owners and occupants), I want to continue to do that. 

And I want to find an artifact that needs to be tended to. I’d love to do another little café before it’s all over. I’d love to take a place that’s unattended, fix it and be the proprietor, at least for a while. 

You’re driving a Toyota Prius, not your signature Volvo station wagon. What’s up with that?

Tarbell: I needed to replace my 1990 Volvo 240 wagon. It was the fourth Volvo wagon I’ve had, but a guy gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I hadn’t seen myself owning [the Prius] because it was too new (2004). But it fits with my ecological beliefs, it was a great deal and it had only 37,000 miles on it. 

Are you walking the city less these days than in the past?

Tarbell: I have chronic issues for the first time in my life. It’s my back – for the last six months. But I’ve always been traveling, walking the city, and hopefully I’ll grow out of it. I like to walk, and historically, I’ve been a bicycle rider, although not recently. I’ve restored a 1967 Robin Hood three-speed and now I have to decide to sell it or keep it.