Bluegrass Cafe - A Sign of Intelligent Life Forms
By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
August 10, 2008 - 9:00 am
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.
So I'm miserable, hot, on my knees checking tire pressure on sun-baked pavement at a gas station that's part of a non-descript truck stop just off Interstate 29, which apparently thanks to annexation is within the city limits of Missouri Valley, Iowa.
I'm so used to finding nothing of note along the interstates, that I'm surprised when the tasty little sign on the side of a cinder-block building catches my eye.
"Bluegrass Cafe, Toe Tappin' Good!"
Oh my, now this is more like it, especially since I've been on the road for hours with hours more to go in a drive up the Missouri River valley from Kansas City to North Dakota.
So I step inside and what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a photo of Big Mon, his steely gaze keeping watch over tables with red and white checkered tablecloths. Or was he watching the good-looking waitress having her pie and coffee during a downtime after the lunch hour rush?
Either way, oh how grateful a traveler is for signs of intelligent life in these terribly bland modern times.
"A lot of the truck drivers like bluegrass and come in here," said owner Deborah Pearce, 39, of Missouri Valley. "I've got the satellite radio with the bluegrass channel, too, and everyone wants to know what station that is. And a lot of people come over from the convenience store next door just to look around."
On the wall they'll find autographed photographs of country or bluegrass artists who have dined there.
"Except for the picture of Allison Krause," Pearce said, "I just like her."
Old instruments hang on the walls. Now and then a customer falls in love with one and Pearce sells it.
Missouri Valley owes the cafe's home-style southern cooking and musical good fortune to the 9/11 terrorist tragedy in New York.
Pearce lost her job as vice president of a stock brokerage company due to a downturn in business in the aftermath. Her husband lost his specialty foods job as business dropped off.
They followed family to western Iowa and drank coffee in the little cafe when it had another owner and name. Then one day it was closed with a for rent sign out front. Pearce inquired, as she'd once helped her mother run a restaurant.
"The next thing I knew, I owned a cafe," she said.
Naming it came easy.
She's from Taneyville, Ky., about 15 miles from Rosine and the Bill Monroe home place. Her husband, Jimmy, plays various instruments in the local band, Wildfire.
"Bluegrass Cafe just seemed appropriate," she said.
Of course, her cafe is not alone in this world.
I Googled the name and came up with 12,200 hits.
Pearce has competition from the Bluegrass Cafe in Tama, Iowa, on the eastern side of the state.
Wes' Bluegrass Cafe in Lookout, Ky., has the slogan: "Dine to that high, lonesome sound."
She need not worry too much about competition from one website with Bluegrass Cafe in its title, as it's dedicated to "general chit chat and things related to the Kentucky prison system."
Most places around the country borrow the name to promote food or music.
Pearce's Bluegrass Cafe does both.
Wildfire plays in her place frequently. A bluegrass band from South Dakota recently saw the sign, stopped and got out their instruments and played. She's forgotten the name, Mountain Boys something or other.
At Christmas season, her four kids and other kin pitch in on a once-a-week free family concert.
Also, the Cafe puts on a bluegrass festival yearly at an antique farm machinery museum that's across the street. Local and traveling bands play. This year it's scheduled for Aug. 23 and 24.
"Last year we had people here from Scotland and Australia," Pearce said.
So if you ever motor west, and get the blues from the highway whine on I-29, take Exit 75 to hear the music that's the best, along with fried pickles and chicken fried steak.
"I have a lot of fun with it," Pearce said, "I really do."