Articles France Bluegrass

The Cook Shack.


Article rédigé par Tom et Gail Watts.

 Voir cet article en français.
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Nick Craver, Bill Hicks, Jim Watson et Joe Newberry.
 Nick Craver, Bill Hicks, Jim Watson et Joe Newberry. 

A small business that became legendary, the Cook Shack was famous for its welcoming atmosphere and its southern cuisine, but also for its Saturday morning jams and regular intimate house concerts that became part of its tradition.

The Cook Shack was not only famous for its Southern hospitality and country cooking but also the great Saturday morning music jams and live music house concerts which happened so naturally and so regularly.

The Cook Shack was one of the last of a special kind of small community stores, once common in the rural South, a business where people met to pick and sing, to talk, share local news, socialize, and to eat.  The Cook Shack was friendly, small and very informal, with a few tables for eating and seating about sixty people for the music.   Everyone was welcome, and there were no strangers.  People from all over the world came to experience the music and culture and were always welcome, even when they did not speak English.  Many French friends visited and became a part of the local tradition of music and friendship, where they made connection with “real people,” not just the things tourists find. 

Pal and Myles Ireland.

The Cook Shack was owned by Pal and Myles Ireland, fine musicians who loved both people and music. 

It was located in Union Grove, North Carolina USA.  The doors closed 5 years ago, when the Irelands retired. 

The Saturday Morning Jams

The regular Saturday morning jams were always crowded with musicians and listeners.  Anyone who wanted to participate was offered the chance to jam.  Young people were always welcome, as were professional musicians who would come by and enjoy being just one of the jammers.  Music ranged from traditional to bluegrass to old country and cowboy music, but the sessions were open to all types of acoustic music.  Once, when French friends attended, the music switched to Gypsy Jazz.  When several classical players were visiting, the music was classical.  It wasn’t unusual to hear music from Switzerland, France, Germany, Sweden, England, Japan, Norway or other countries.  Many of these folks were our friends who came as they knew about the Cook Shack as we partnered with Myles and Pal Ireland in planning musical events and in staging the house concerts that were so popular.

During MerleFest

The world class music festival, MerleFest, happens yearly only 20 miles from the Cook Shack, and many friends from all around the world would come to the area for the festival.  Arriving before the MerleFest, they often would visit the Cook Shack, so we started the “International Jam” on the Tuesday before the festival to celebrate them and their music.  It quickly became a tradition. The flag of each country represented at the jam was displayed. 

In addition to international friends, local musicians attended and shared in the music, including well-known musicians like Wayne Henderson, the Kruger Brothers, Dori Freeman and her father, Scott, John Boulding, Steve & Penny Kilby, Andrew Marlin (Mandolin Orange), Carl Jones and Erynn Marshall, Jerry Brown and more. 

These folks mixed in with the international friends and other local musicians, and the result was musical magic.

Myles et Pal Ireland et l'enseigne du Cook Shack.
Myles et Pal Ireland et l'enseigne du Cook Shack.
Jam internationale au Cook Shack.
Jam internationale au Cook Shack.
Drapeaux des pays de provenance de musiciens présents ce jour-là.
Drapeaux des pays de provenance de musiciens présents ce jour-là.

The House Concerts

The Cook Shack became famous for the Thursday night house concerts which took place there. 

That tradition started when we were frustrated by not being able to attend a live out-of-town concert by a special band we loved, a spinoff of Red Clay Ramblers that included Mike Craver, Bill Hicks, Jim Watson and Joe Newberry, and thought of hosting a show ourselves.

Myles & Pal Ireland agreed without reservation to the idea and the band came to present the first of many live concerts at the Cook Shack.  All money from the gate was given to the musicians, and the Irelands donated use of the building and sound equipment. 

Video : Craver, Hicks, Watson & Newberry at the Cook Shack.

Vidéo : The Stray Birds at the Cook Shack.

The shows were staged out of a love for music, not for any profit.  Interested music lovers signed up for an email list and promised to attend the show without pre-paying their admission.  This became the tradition and was unlike other venues in that reservations built around trust. Only 60 seats were available, and always every seat was filled.  An email announcing each concert was sent out, then interested people made reservations.  This was unusual in that nobody sent in a pre-paid admission.  The operation worked on trust and friendship and a love for the music.  If a conflict came up, the person making the reservation either paid for the seats or they found others to fill them. 

House Concerts were up close and very informal.  Sometimes people on the front rows ended up holding the musician’s extra instruments.  Shows started at 7:30 PM and were over by 10:00 PM.  Close attention was paid to both start and stop times, since concerts were held on Thursday nights and many people had a long drive home and work the next day. 

Musicians consistently said they loved the old country store informality of the shows, where there were no blinding lights and musicians could look into smiling faces as they performed.

Honest encores were routine; and, as word spread among professional musicians, we were able to bring in many “big name musicians” for performance.  While many fine musicians lived with the area, the focus of the house shows was to bring in professionals of national reputation and to provide a special night of music with them in an intimate space. 

Wayne Henderson, luthier et musicien hors pair.
Wayne Henderson, luthier et musicien hors pair.
Tut Taylor.
Tut Taylor.
Uwe Kruger, Gail Watts, Jens Kruger, Lody van Lrop, Tom Watts, Maynard Holbrook and Pal Ireland. Assis : Kirstten Seidell, Myles Ireland, Harper VanHoy.
Uwe Kruger, Gail Watts, Jens Kruger, Lody van Lrop, Tom Watts, Maynard Holbrook and Pal Ireland. Assis : Kirstten Seidell, Myles Ireland, Harper VanHoy.

A sample of musicians who performed at the Cook Shack include :


  • French musicians : Mary-Lou (Jean Luc Brosse and Felicie Garric, Steven Dhondt), Ida Red (Polo Burguiere, Nadine Marinelli, John Herrmann & Meredith McIntosh), Pierre Brau-Arnauty;
  • Swiss musicians : the Coffee Pickers (Maria and Kurt Stadlin);
  • German musicians : the Looping Brothers (Uli Sieker, Matthias Malcher and Ralf Strotmann),

And also :

and many more.

If you’d like to see videos of some of the Cook Shack Concerts, there are many posted on the YouTube Channel “Banjo Gal”.

The Cook Shack offered special moments with up close music and with friends in an informal and unusual setting.  Some would say it was “magic.”  While the basic idea of the Cook Shack was not in itself novel, the shared enthusiasm for live music between the musicians and those who came on a regular basis was very special.  It is sad that now the Cook Shack has closed its doors, but the memories that remain are intense and lasting. 

Gail and Tom Watts celebrate 53 years of wedding a few weeks ahead of writing this post. Both were born in North Carolina and were teachers and educators. They have a tremedous list of volunteer jobs and actions for festivals (MerleFest, Fiddle & Bow Folk Music Society in Winston-Salem, Union Grove Fiddler’s Convention, Oak Grove Folk Music Festival in Staunton, Virginia, Live Music at the Old Jail in Statesville...), organizing concerts and music events, and also music journalism (Live music column for the Fiddle & Bow Newsletter).

Tom and Gail Watts were involved as volunteers and part time staff at radio WNCW, a public radio station in North Carolina that specializes in presenting acoustic music of many styles.

« Music has been the magic carpet that has led us all to friendship and cultural exchange. This has been a particularly excellent part of our lives. »


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Par Ellen Wolff
 le 15-06-2020 à 13:31
 - This was a nice website- I was able to have the computer translate the whole thing with a click of the mouse. We miss you here in Princeton NJ.  
Par Mathilde
 le 03-07-2020 à 17:07
 - Que de bons souvenirs au Cook Shack pour moi ! Une ambiance très particulière et si chaleureuse. Merci les amis pour ce bel article. 

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