Monday, April 19, 2010

The Cook Shack - Union Grove, NC

For several years friends have been telling us, "You gotta go up to The Cook Shack on a Saturday morning for breakfast and the jam."  We'd heard about the great musicians who drop in there for Saturday breakfast as well as the occasional house concerts held there on weekday evenings about twice a month.  Arriving in Wilkesboro a little more than a week early for Jam Camp and Merlefest, we had Saturday morning free, even though we were a bit tired.  Before driving there we had to find the place!  Our Google Maps search kept trying to send us over 100 miles east towards the coast.  Since folks had said The Cook Shack is just a few miles down the road in Union Grove, we were confused, until we discovered there are four Union Groves in North Carolina, and the one we were looking for is an unincorporated community in the town of Harmony just a few miles off I-77 south of Satesville on route 901.  Of course, we were coming from the wrong direction, but the unassuming building hove into view right where it was supposed to be.  We parked the truck and walked into the building to find a musical and visual wonder dedicated to making and celebrating music.

Not an inch of wall space remains vacant.  Pictures, posters, album covers, CD cases, instruments hanging on racks ready to play all vie for space with a corner kitchen devoted to preparing food and a few tables where customers can sit to eat.  The largest floor space in the room is devoted to several stools holding desklike boards on them with microphones surrounded by seats for musicians to sit around the jam circle.  A small platform has several picin' gliders and an electronic keyboard.  A bench in front of the divider separating the dining area serves as a waiting area until it fills up with people there for the jam.  Myles and Pal Ireland, founders and owners of this small restaurant that has become an important destination for music lovers, welcome people as they come in, whether they're strangers or old friends.  The environment is welcoming and warm.

The Stage
Myles Ireland

Pal Ireland

Other members of the Ireland family are very much in evidence.  The crowd ranges in age from perhaps the mid-eighties down to early teens, but I suspect a greater age distribution is often there.  We sat down at a yellow table and ordered coffee and breakfast sandwiches as people began to line up for food and take seats in the performance area.  A little after 8:00 A.M., Myles walked over to the microphones, pulled his cutaway guitar off the hook on the wall, sat down and began to warm up.  He was joined by Maynard Holbroo, a wonderful singer whom we'd seen at the Kruger Brothers' homes as well as at the jam tents of the Wilkes Acoustic Folk Society during the three days preceding Merlefest.  Other people sitting in the inner portion of the jam circle were mostly familiar to us, although we didn't know their names.  Lots of the same faces show up at jams in this corner of North Carolina.

The music began with mellow renditions of Country Gentleman and Seldom Scene classics played to moderate tempos with the volume generally fitting into an environment permitting Saturday morning get-togethers.  The seats provided for the audience filled up as people slipped in the door, greeted each other, grabbed and sandwich or cup of coffee and sat down.  Musicians carrying cases came in the door, disappeared into a back room to get their instruments out, and pulled up in a circle around the core group.  The level of musicianship, as one often finds in these kinds of places was very high, but it seemed that musicians around the periphery were welcomed, regardless of their ability.  If you know the etiquette of the the jam, I suspect you'll be welcome here, too.   

The Audience

The Musicians
Gary Eisenhour

Maynard Holbrook

Tommy Malbouf (?)

 Mark Wingler

The Scene

House Concerts

Tom and Gail Watts manage The Cook Shack's web site and host a series of  house concerts there held roughly twice a month.  These events often feature major musicians on their way through the region as well as local favorites.  These events are often sold out, so keep an eye open for them or request to be put on the mailing list.

Tom Watts

How To Find the Cook Shack

On Sunday evening we dropped in, electronically, on the Country Music Awards show coming from Las Vegas, finding ourselves horrified by the glitz, noise, and general mediocre quality of the musicianship. This degradation of country music stands in stark contrast to the warm and authentic sounds originating in places like The Cook Shack that can be found in more quiet and remote spots around our country. The Cook Shack is one of those unique places where bluegrass, classic country, old time, and, yes, pop, rock, jazz, and other forms are kept alive for those who love to hear and make the music.  It's one of those places where authentic American music is made and heard and not to be missed, but you'll have to look for them as those who truly love music don't want Nashville or Hollywood to get ahold of them and ruin the experience.  We'll be at the Home Town Opry at Main Street Pawn on Friday morning at 7:00 A.M. this week.