We’ve found good music and fun folks making it happen all over the place. It’s important to have someone who knows the local scene to get you there, though. Our friends Jerry and Tami Butler, along with their four year old daughter Sami, were our guides on Monday. Cove Lake State Park, Caryville, TN, is about twenty miles north of Knoxville just off I-75. The lake, offering what looks like lots of underwater brush as fish habitat, is surrounded by playgrounds, paths, and spacious campground with water and electric hookups and modern looking wash rooms. Near the entrance are a restaurant and an indoor pavilion, which is why Jerry and Tami Butler brought us here late Monday afternoon.
Our first stop was Rickard Ridge Barbecue, the concession restaurant located at the entrance of the park. Rated 4 ½ stars by the Grub Scout, food critic of the Knoxville News; it deserves every one of them. This is no doubt one of the finest barbecue places we’ve ever been, anywhere. Proprietor Mark Rickard spent some years competing on the barbecue circuit, and his offerings show the effects of tough competition. Ribs are succulent and crispy without ever becoming gooey or soft; the pulled pork is smoky and moist, not needing added barbecue sauce unless you prefer it that way. Smoke chicken thighs are one of the signature offerings here, and they deserve special mention, particularly since it’s rare to find chicken these days that isn’t breast. After a discussion with Mark, we settled on the Rickard Ridge top combo ($16.95) a sampler of the best of the menu with enough food for both of us plus another meal or two brought home. It would be hard to say enough good things about the food, the folks, or the fun. This is a don’t miss restaurant for barbecue aficionados. A beautiful view of the lake comes for free, and there is seasonal outdoor seating. For people heading south on I-75, Rickard Ridge Barbecue as good an introduction to southern barbecue as you’re likely to get.
When you add music to the meal, Rickard’s becomes a special treat. There’s a small stage at the front of the dining room with a couple of microphones. Around 5:30, musicians started showing up, tuning up, and setting up. A ten year old fiddler named Ethan Ferguson came over to meet Jerry along with Russ Rickard, Mark’s dad. Several pickers took the stage and Ethan led off with some fiddle tunes backed by a full band. More people came and went, all to enthusiastic response from those in attendance. Jerry quietly warmed up over by the fireplace and then took his place as a guitar sideman. Gary Inman, a talented singer/songwriter played and sang lead. Jerry, who plays guitar and sings lead for Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road, is a truly gentle and gracious man. While he has been full time professional musician for most of his adult life, tonight he seemed perfectly happy to pick in support and sing when asked. No show, no pretense. Jerry finished up the set, and we moved next door to the Pavilion.
After hearing several bands, the emcee brought Jerry Butler out to sing and play for the concluding set. I expect Jerry would have been just as happy to be on stage playing back-up for the other bands, but they treated him as a celebrity. He had a strong band, including Ken Bonham, a very good electric guitar player. They sang a string of classic country tunes that really got people dancing and clapping. Jerry had a chance to renew acquaintances with some old friends, and everyone had a good time. We got home on time to watch the second half of the basketball game.