When most musicians are crawling into bed after late-night gigs, Pal and Myles Ireland begin cooking breakfast for The Cook Shack’s Saturday session.
Pal Ireland makes music in her kitchen every Saturday morning — eggs and sausage, grits and French toast. The harmony of crackling bacon and a gurgling coffee pot, however, disappears as a joyful sound begins just a few feet away.
It’s not that breakfast at The Cook Shack in Union Grove isn’t tasty: “That livermush is goo-ood,” one patron tells his young son. But most visitors come from miles away to the country grill — owned by Pal and Myles, her husband of 54 years — for a little of the homemade jam.
“It’s a-gettin’ started to get wound up in here, y’all,” Pal says.
Strings in hand
If you arrive early enough — doors open at 8 a.m. — you’ll see sheathed instruments standing in the corner. Countless old country records, concert bills, and sepia-toned artist photos — mingled with family shots — fill every square-inch of wall space. One of the guitars belongs to Gary Isenhouer, who sits in a booth with L.W. Lambert, an 84-year-old wearing a trucker hat and a plaid shirt. Lambert is a master of the three-finger style and owns the antique, custom banjo propped beside Isenhouer’s guitar.
Myles Ireland, always soft-spoken, chats with the two early birds. They finish breakfast just as the morning crowd rolls in. Myles’s grandson, Will, clears the plates, and the three men take a seat in the foyer and start picking through Flatt and Scruggs’s classic “Gonna Settle Down,” one of Lambert’s favorites. By the time they finish thefirst number, a fiddle, mandolin, and electric bass anxiously wait to join in on traditional tunes, such as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and the Civil War song “Angeline the Baker.”
Players rotate in and out all morning, as new faces arrive for breakfast with strings in hand. Customers pay their bills up front — “Cash on the barrelhead,” Pal says — and immediately take seats in the rows of foldout chairs a few feet from the players. The music lasts until midafternoon, and many decide to stay for lunch.
Local music scene
The jam grows to more than a dozen players at one time during peak hours and includes Al and Clay Lunsford, distant relatives of folklorist Bascum Lunsford, and J.P. Van Hoy, whose uncle has operated the nearby Fiddler’s Grove campground since 1970.
The jams started more than 20 years ago, by accident, Pal says.
“Myles has always played music, and we’d have people over to play at home,” she says. “J.P. was going to retire and wanted to play music more, so they started up Saturday out back in the morning time. Once other people heard about them, it all just happened spontaneously.”
Over time, the out-back jams became larger and more popular. Bob Anderson learned to play the fiddle just so he could take part, and now he owns and operates the Union Grove Fiddle Shop. Occasionally, touring acts, such as the Kruger Brothers and the Snyder Family Band, stop by to play, but there’s no shortage of pickers born and raised in Union Grove. The Fiddler’s Grove Festival, one of the oldest fiddler’s contests in North America, built and continues to strengthen Union Grove’s rich music culture. The jams are a folkway that help pass on the local music tradition to the next generation, Pal says, and it’s just a coincidence that the sessions attract people from long distances who return often. But friend and fellow picker Tom Watts believes it’s something far simpler that brings them back.
“What you experience there is true Southern hospitality,” Watts says. “Myles often refers to the jam area as his living room, and that attitude, along with Pal’s genuine love of people, is the thing that causes folks to feel at home.” That’s the way the Irelands want it. Although the novelty of an impromptu breakfast concert surprises many first-timers, with a second visit, newcomers become regulars.
The Cook Shack
1895 West Memorial Highway
Union Grove, N.C. 28689
Ryan Snyder is the music writer for YES! Weekly and is an editor for an international marketing company.