Hungry, tired and road weary, we left a distribution center in Newton, N.C., and headed for the nearest truck stop. The Country Market and Grill Truck Stop in nearby Maiden was advertised as a 24-hour restaurant, fuel island and convenience store.
It was an odd-looking little place, with two diesel pumps and a set of CAT scales around back. Only half the parking lot was paved, and the few trucks we saw looked as if they had been there a while. It was hot, dusty, and at first glance, didn’t appear to be anything to write home about.
When we walked in, the layout was like any other mini-mart, with a cashier and coolers full of cold beverages. There was no discernible line between restaurant and store; booths, tables and chairs were spread haphazardly beside the aisles of candy, beef jerky and canned boiled peanuts. The delicious aroma of sizzling bacon permeated everything. (Again with the bacon, I know, but bacon is the most delicious thing on the planet and when I smell it I’m automatically happier.) Box fans were everywhere. Air conditioning didn’t seem to be an option, and I honestly didn’t expect much – until I sat down and opened the menu.
Butter beans, black-eyed peas, fried squash, cornbread and country fried steak was all I needed to see to know this was going to be good. I ordered the daily special, Salisbury steak with field peas, white rice and gravy. My husband ordered the double cheeseburger and fries. The tea was sweet and cold, and overheard conversation centered around the Saturday night bluegrass session.
When the food came out on Styrofoam plates, it took two hands to lift them off the tray without them breaking in half. Gigantic portions of home-cooked food made the throw-away dinnerware look like silver serving platters. Real Salisbury steak, swimming in perfect brown gravy, fresh field peas, and fluffy white rice made my mouth water. The double cheeseburger was immense, cooked to a tee with bubbly golden goodness dripping off the sides. It was more food than either one of us could ever eat in one sitting, but we tucked in and gobbled up as much as we could hold.
Thirty minutes and 15,000 calories later, we rolled ourselves from the booth towards our truck. Total bill: $18. The waitress told us there would be live bluegrass music from 6 to 10, and to “come on back, now.” We left her a $5 tip and set out for showers and a nap.
Several hours later, refreshed and clean, we decided to see what live music inside a mini-mart sounded like. Our waitress form earlier, Fran, greeted us gleefully.
“I sure do appreciate the nice tip. I told everybody y’all was good people. Sit on down and let me get you a slice of chocolate cake and some tea.”
The cake (which had been made on site that day) was so rich and delicious, I almost forgot about the music. Seriously, it was some bad ass cake.
Tables had been pushed against side walls, and several older ladies and gentlemen sat with their guitars, picking away to old-style mountain tunes. The audience consisted of what appeared to be family and a few friends. Not a drop of liquor was sold, but everyone was smiling, clapping and singing along.
I once paid $38 to watch Gregg Allman vomit on stage and forget the words to all of his songs. This was free, and it was one of the coolest musical performances I have ever seen. Keep in mind that it all took place inside a convenience store. The weird factor alone was notable.
They played until 11, rotating instruments from guitars to banjos and fiddles to standing bass. The old gospel tunes were the best. “I’ll Fly Away” brought me to tears. When they finished, we went to thank them and ask permission to post some of the footage we took on the blog. None of them knew what a blog was, but they were friendly and flattered we thought they were that good.
“Well, we’re just plunkin’ around, Miss, but you’re welcome to use the recording any way you want. We’re here every Saturday night, y’all come on back any time.”
We assured them the next time we were within a hundred miles of them, we’d definitely be there. We rolled out the next morning (after an incredible breakfast, including the best grits I have ever tasted in my life) fat, happy and listening to bluegrass. You heard me, I said bluegrass.