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Speal’s Tavern endures as popular hangout, haven for blues and roots performers

Three people perform with guitars on a stage
Courtesy of Dan Speal
Speal's Tavern began as a bar and grocery store in his home in 1933 by Tony Speal.

Head out of Pittsburgh on the Parkway East and U.S. 22. Roll through the suburbs and exurbs into rural Salem Township. Depending on the traffic, the drive, a bit over 32 miles, might take between 35 minutes and an hour.

Make a right on U.S. 119 south. A few hundred feet ahead on the left, you’ll see a weathered, gray-and-white building, a onetime grocery store that since 1939, has housed Speal’s Tavern, “the home of blues, booze and big-ass wings.”

Use your imagination. It could be a Mississippi Delta juke joint or East Texas honky-tonk, the kinds of places Walker Evans photographed in the 30’s. Speal’s has elements of both. The interior is lived-in and informal; memorabilia and kitsch decorate most of the walls. The live tunes lean heavily to blues and other roots music.

Calling it a dive bar, however, misses the point. Speal’s is a step back in time, to an era before trendiness. You’ll find no cutting-edge microbrewery, distillery or winery. Beer and harder stuff are available, paired with a menu offering home-cooked burgers, tacos, wings, sandwiches, salads and sides, with Speal family members pouring and cooking.

All this began 91 years ago in Salemville, just a couple miles west. When Prohibition ended, miner Tony Speal opened a bar and grocery store in his home in 1933. Six years later, he bought the grocery store's building, moved his family upstairs and opened the bar downstairs.

It became a popular watering hole serving the immediate area, including New Alexandria and nearby rural coal mining villages like Frogtown, Salemville and Shieldsburg.

After Tony’s untimely death, the bar passed to his son Dan in 1941. Dan’s sons grew up working there. The third generation stepped in when son Tom took over. When he was ready to let go, his kids weren’t interested in running it, so in 2010 he sold it to younger brother Dan, Jr., a retired teacher. Dan’s son Shane, a musician, suggested re-inventing it as a blues bar.

By converting seating space into a live music area and creating a new menu, Speal’s became something totally new while maintaining its venerable heritage.

The open mic nights draw regulars and aspiring performers. Every Friday is reserved for blues and hosted by various bands. Acoustic open mic takes place Thursdays. On “uncovered” nights for singer-songwriters, they can perform only originals — no covers allowed. Bluegrass and country get one night a month. Saturdays often feature local bands or singers like Barbara Blue.

It’s become an incubator for aspiring local talent. Dan Speal recalls one vocalist, shaky at the start, who evolved into a confident, in-demand performer after some mentoring by an experienced regular. “There’s no egos,” he says. “All the musicians try to help (inexperienced singers) out.”

Several walls around the stage house Shane Speal’s Cigar Box Guitar (CBG) Museum. A world-famous CBG virtuoso, historian and builder, Shane remains a prime mover in promoting the ancient DIY instruments. Among the dozens of specimens is one over a century old. Based in York, Pa., Shane and his Snake Oil Band occasionally perform at Speal’s, as do local CBG players.

Two spinoff businesses are culinary. Dan’s nephew Terry owns the food truck “Speal’s on Wheels” and recently opened the nearby, free-standing “Speal’s off Wheels” food pavilion.

Sunset over a bar with a man walking nearby.
Courtesy Dan Speal
Speal's has long been a local watering hole, and now features blues performers and other specialty music evenings.

One thing hasn’t changed in those nine-plus decades: Speal’s remains a local gathering place. The patrons, largely older, hail from around Westmoreland County and nearby communities like Blairsville. A few musicians travel from as far away as Washington County to perform.

“These guys play all over. They’ll tell me, this is our favorite place to play. They’re there — the crowds are there.” Despite the retro focus, the tavern has a sizable, detailed website and strong social media presence.

Even so, Dan Speal is well aware the road ahead is uncertain for any such endeavor. Some customers agree. “All these places are gone,” one told him.

Nonetheless, he’s certain about one thing. “As long as I’m around, it’ll stay the way it is. I’m 76. I have five sons and two daughters. It’s our thing. It’s Speal’s Tavern. How can you let that die?”

Rich Kienzle is an award-winning music critic, journalist and historian and author of three books. A former contributing editor of "Country Music Magazine" and "No Depression," his work has appeared in "Texas Monthly," the "Austin American-Statesman," "Fretboard Journal" and the "Pittsburgh Post-Gazette." He has also authored liner notes for numerous historic CD reissues.