Country jams

Sunday, March 14, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:56 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Betty White didn’t know what she was getting into 30 years ago, marrying a fiddler.

A few weeks after they were married, she went to the bathroom to find her husband locked inside, refusing to come out. She grew alarmed.

“I really thought there was something wrong,” White says.

What was wrong was that the acoustics were better in the bathroom than the rest of the house, and for a fiddler who needed the sound of his music to fill up his soul — the rhythms and tones swelling around him — the bathroom was the best place.

Eventually, John White emerged, though he was to return many times.

Now, when he plays the fiddle every Sunday afternoon, he is joined by a host of friends and instruments. It will be two years this summer that the group has been getting together at Heuer’s Country Store and Cafe on U.S. 63 near Riggs, every Sunday from 4 to 6 p.m.

Sometimes there’s just a smattering of musicians. They can sit in a tight circle, teaching and learning as they fill the country store with dance tunes. Sometimes only the wives and loyal regulars brave the elements or the drive to fill the booths and get their food.

Sometimes it’s packed: full of regulars who plan out their week to include a good country-fried steak and mashed potatoes and some foot-stomping tunes to round out the weekend. Those times, the musicians line the restaurant like wallflowers, the inner tables filled with friends, beer bottles, iced tea jars, empty plates and loud stories.

When the weather allows, they take their music outside — sitting on the porch, serenading the nearby pets but probably not making an impression on the cars zooming past.

“It’s not really that fancy a music,” John White comments. “You don’t hear much about it, but a whole bunch of this (dance music) playing goes on.”

The players accept everyone. And though the instruments tend to be more representative of traditional folk music — fiddles, guitars, harmonica, a mandolin and accordion at times — they eagerly seek out all musicians, skill and expertise irrelevant.

“We do this for fun,” White says. “We don’t try to be real great.”

Drinking mugs of tea, they meander their way through a random repertoire, each song as different as its name: “The Little Rabbit,” “Peek-a-boo Waltz,” “Heel and Toe Polka,” “Denim Pants,” “Don’t Kick My Dog Around.”

“ ‘Old Indiana’, good song, good song,” Charlie O’Brien of Hallsville says, slapping his harmonica against the palm of his hand. “Pretty, pretty, pretty,” he says, as if sad that it’s over.

“I’ve never heard a waltz I didn’t like,” he says later as they take a quick break.

They switch instruments, passing around a homemade mandolin or trading back and forth the several others they toted along. They record their sounds, pick up new tunes from previously recorded songs, double-check the tuning. The other diners clap their hands against the wooden booths, above them deer heads and mounted fish stare for all eternity. The sweet tea is refilled, the beer is plentiful and the music is rip rolling.

In a couple of hours and all too soon, the room starts to empty out. It’s time to head home. Heuer’s closes about 6 p.m., so the players reluctantly pack up, snapping shut the hard, black cases and pulling up their coat collars.

“Seems like all good fun comes to an end too soon,” O’Brien says.

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