AMITE — Rock’s Cafe has quickly become the hot spot on Thursday nights as musicians from Louisiana and surrounding states gather during what seems to be the only “free-style, come-as-you-are and perform your favorite hits” event in Tangipahoa Parish.
Coined “Where Townsfolk Jam Together,” the evenings feature old-fashioned gatherings where people play and sing. The events don’t feature a band, just people who come together to play music and sing.
One Thursday evening late last month, the sounds of guitars, mandolins, dulcimers, harmonicas and bass violins wafted through the more-than-90-year-old building that was turned into a cafe about two years ago.
The sounds — a mix of country, blues and gospel — feature ordinary people from all walks of life who form a circle at the front of the cafe and take turns doing what they love best: playing music.
“It’s growing,” said Bob Irwin, who started the music circle with his friend Andy Anderson. “It’s an ebb and flow; people come, people go.”
Irwin, a musician who would gather with other musicians at his barbershop in Amite, outgrew his small location and was looking for someplace new, someplace larger, where more musicians and spectators could gather.
That’s when he and Anderson approached Rock’s Cafe owner Suzanne Lee and asked if they could use her place on Thursday nights.
“She was willing to give it a try and it just took off,” Irwin said.
Once word of the circle made its way around town and throughout other areas of the parish, musicians began showing up, some as early as 5:30 p.m., to perform.
When the event started in January, about 10 to 15 musicians would attend the “Where Townsfolk Jam Together” sessions, Irwin said. Those musicians were orginally known as the Chicken Farm Road Society.
Now, more than 20 musicians attend each Thursday event, and veteran musicians give up their seats to newcomers.
“This is about the community,” Irwin said. “Everybody in the whole building is welcome to sing and play.”
While the musicians are generally older than 50, people of all ages are welcome, Irwin said.
Even youths such as Shaya Brumfield, 10, who donned a shirt adorned with horses and sequins, joined the circle and played the mandola.
“I’m not nervous,” the Amite resident said. “It’s fun.”
“I’ll sit in on the jam session with them when my ‘pipes’ are up to par,” said Lee Sauls, of Amite, who waited his turn to join the music circle.
“Its a nice place to come and meet your friends,” he said.
“People sing, dance, and laugh together,” Bob Irwin’s wife, Linda, said. “It is truly a heartwarming evening.”
“I had horrible stage fright,” Chris Catalanotto said. “But this is helping to bring me out of it. This is really helping me break the ice,” he said.
Darby Carroll, of Amite, said she’s only missed the gathering once.
“I enjoy it,” Carroll said. “I like country music and mingling with the crowd, and the food’s good, too.”
During the events, Lee cooks everything from homemade pork chops, black-eyed peas and cabbage, macaroni and cheese to hamburgers.
Once the crowd gets a whiff of the homemade aroma, everyone begins to order food, she said.
“Business has picked up,” Lee said. “We have our regular Thursday night crowd, and different people coming all of the time.”
Lee said she opened the family-operated restaurant at 309 NW Central Ave., Amite, two years ago and named the restaurant after her father, Raymond “Rocks” Burgess, who died two months ago, she said.
“I’ve always cooked,” Lee said. “I enjoy cooking so much that I thought, ‘Why not make a living at it.’ ”
As word spreads of the event, both Irwin and Lee worry that Rock’s Cafe will eventually be too small to accommodate the crowd.
But if Bob Irwin has his way, “We’re never going to leave this place. This is where it all started for us.”
For now, the jam sessions continue and are open to everyone, regardless of musical ability, Bob Irwin said. He said he hopes more youths and senior citizens come out to perform.
“It’s hard to find a place to go and listen to music without paying a lot of money,” Irwin said.
Amite Mayor Buddy Bel, who has become a regular spectator at the jam sessions, said he comes to talk with people and listen to the music. He said he’s proud of the city’s latest attraction.”
“This is fantastic,” Bel said. “This is great for our community.”