by David Cecelski
The sign on the outside of the Cook Shack, on US 901 in Union Grove, in Iredell County, says “Sandwiches. Groceries. Guns. Ammo. Hunting Licenses.” But you walk in the front door on a Saturday morning and it’s a whole lot more: a freewheeling country, old-time, and gospel music open jam with a crowd of folks picking and strumming and fiddling.
A local couple, Myles and Pal Ireland, have hosted these gatherings at their little grill and community store for 40 years. The music starts early on Saturday mornings, usually around 8 AM. But when I got there at twelve-thirty, eight or nine guys were still playing. They looked like they were having the time of their lives, too.
They played in the store’s one big room, which is wall-papered with record jackets, guitar magazine ads, and concert posters. The grill is off to one side, with a counter and 6 or 7 booths.
I ordered a bowl of pinto beans and cornbread and settled into a booth a few feet from the nearest group of musicians. Some were in their 60s or 70s, some looked like teenagers. My waiter looked like a teenager, too. He called the cook “Nana.”
For me the highlight of the Cook Shack’s lunch-time jam was an older gentleman’s solo rendition of “Unchained Melody,” the song that Roy Orbison, the Platters, and of course the Righteous Brothers made a big hit in the ‘50s and ‘60s. When he sang “Lonely rivers flow/To the sea/to the sea/to the open arms of the sea,” everybody at the grill put down their soup spoons and coffee cups and just listened.
His voice was gravely, but soft and tender, and just lovely. He sang like he had known all the love and hurt and loss in the world.
I’ve always enjoyed the way that young crooners like the Righteous Brothers sang that song. But when an old man with a voice full of feeling sings, “And time goes by so slowly/And time can do so much,” it really stirs the soul.
I finished my lunch while the gentleman sang an encore, “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues,” the old Earl Scruggs’ song about a fellow who longs to go home to the mountains. I know my lunch was just a bowl of pinto beans and cornbread, but I don’t know when I’ve had a nicer meal.