When the adventure began my father-in-law Russell Bradford was 96 years old. Bob Wills music played in Russell’s proximity for a substantial fraction of those 96 years. If you were lucky, you might hear Russell singing along with Bob and his Texas Playboys or, at the very least, appreciate Russell’s soft “aaahaa…” punctuate the end of each chorus just as Bob had done. Russell’s appreciation for Western Swing music was completely authentic.
Russell turned 17 the year Bob released his signature hit “New San Antonio Rose.” The song charted for Bob in 1940. And again in 1941. And again in 1943. Bing Crosby covered it and sold an additional million copies. It seems like half the Country Music Hall of Fame has taken their crack at the tune with Patsy Cline doing a female version. Not to be left out, singers of other stripes joined the bandwagon, to include Pat Boone, John Denver and Clint Eastwood. I would reserve the “most unexpected” award for that last entry if it were not for a Swedish group (not ABBA) making the song wildly popular in Scandinavia.
The point being Bob Wills was a superstar and Russell came of age right when Bob hit his zenith. Sort of like being a teenager when Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles or the Stones tilted the world on its head. (My daughters could fill me in on more recent equivalents, but lets focus on the nostalgia). Russell’s love for Bob’s music was more than aesthetic. As a young Navy enlistee stationed in San Diego towards the end of World War II, Russell and his bride, Gerry, were regulars when Bob played to packed houses at the Mission Ballroom.
Life has all sorts of adventures for those willing to enjoy it. To be young and in love, on your own a long way from home and dancing to your favorite music ranks pretty highly on that list. All of that explains Russell’s and Gerry’s frequent attendance at Bob Wills’ Days in Turkey, Texas. Bob spent his formative yeas in Turkey, which, to steal a Dwight Yoakum line, is “a thousand miles from nowhere” in the Texas panhandle. But every April, for four days, people from across the country flock to Turkey to celebrate Bob Wills and his music. Russell, Gerry, the dog and the Airstream trailer made it most years.
My knowledge of Bob Wills came from Waylon Jennings. He recorded Bob Wills is Still the King as a B-side to Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way. For a B-side the record, and particularly the live version recorded at Austin’s Texas Opry House, became wildly popular. As luck would have it, my teenage years coincided with the Outlaw Country movement in which Waylon was prominent. I liked the song and I liked Texas. So I liked Bob Wills without ever actually listening to Bob Wills.
Being around Russell for almost 40 years transformed my appreciation for Bob from the hypothetical to something more genuine. In my heart, however, I knew that a city kid who grew up comfortably probably lacked the intense connection to the King of Texas Music that Russell enjoyed. Russell and Bob both worked the fields, sweated the Great Depression and at times wondered where their next meal was coming from.
But I figured I had lived in Texas long enough and listened to Bob Wills-either directly or through the awesomeness of Asleep at the Wheel-so frequently that I qualified as an ardent fan. So it came to be that in April 2019, M’Lissa and I lit out for Turkey to enjoy Bob Wills’ Days and to honor her parents.
We started late in the evening, having agreed to reprise our well reviewed roles as “Extra Man” and “Extra Woman” in Waco’s Cotton Palace pageant (apparently now renamed to the more woke “Waco Palace” because…cotton. A whole other story. After ditching our costumes, we planned to spend the night in Wichita Falls and travel the remainder of those thousand miles to nowhere in the morning. The drive through Fort Worth and its mushrooming Northern suburbs reminded us that Texas can be annoying as anywhere, but after we escaped the city, things began to hit their stride.
April Texas weather rewards convertible living. Cool enough for a sweatshirt, but not cold. As a bonus we listened to a TCU radio broadcast of our Bears just embarrassing them on the diamond. With the game over, we switched to the iPod (you read that right, I told you this is about nostalgia) for a little preview of the weekend’s music. We pulled in to Wichita Falls late, put de-stressed and happy.
Up early the next morning we were hungry by the time US 287 saw us nearing Vernon, Texas. As the whole point of the weekend was a quest for authenticity, we sought out local. And that is how we found ourselves in downtown Vernon at 8:00 am on a Saturday morning looking for the Herring Coffee Shop. Luckily for the Empty Nesters, we had a Vernon connection who could confirm our selection.
Laurie Wollitz Sellers, M’Lissa’s college roommate and wife/supervisor to my good friend Steve Sellers, often visited Vernon to see her grandparents. (Side note: Laurie grew up in Corpus Christi, summered in Vernon and lived her adult life in Houston, meaning that for most of her being the horizon was unbroken by any visible geological formation. So it only makes sense that she has now climbed every mountain in Colorado that exceeds 14,000 feet in elevation. Texasness can drive one to do crazy things.) Laurie was kind enough to confirm that the Herring was authentic and kind enough not to question why were asking.
After we finally realized that the Herring was not named for itself, but rather reflected the name of the bank with whom it shared a lobby, we located the restaurant and stepped into a time capsule. The aroma provides the first sensory wake-up call. A real breakfast reminds you of mom cooking while you regain consciousness and eventually compels you to leave the comfort of your bed for the comfort of the food. The smell inside the Herring told that story all over.
Next was the sound. Two tables of farmers were near us, swapping the same stories they told every week. Their laughter was genuine and they soon included us in their conversation. I noticed a couple of things. First was the intergenerational aspect. These men were friends like you and your buddies or you and your girl pals are friends, despite an approximate age span of 40 years. Second, that intergenerational aspect extended to the high school waitress who they kidded because they obviously knew her and liked her. Of course, she had no possibility of messing up their order because they did not place an order. The owner just confirmed what each man would be having by reciting his usual. In the absence of disagreement, that is what the customer got. I am sure that one time in 1987, Frank switched from biscuits to whole wheat toast or something as equally as radical, but consistency nowseemed to be the order of the day.
The Herring Coffee Shop certainly looked the part. A soda counter with chrome swivel stools begged for children to turn circles while they waited for a shake or treat. A few booths, a few tables and a simple kitchen right on top of you. And a huge window to make sure you could see and be seen. Simple, classic and functional.
Of course, the food defines the Diner Experience. Given that decades of breakfasts have been served in the Herring, we had high expectations. As you can tell from the headline picture, we set the bar too low. Paula Deane would have been proud to serve this meal. We spent a little time complemented the cook/owner, who traveled every day from Oklahoma to make all this work. She modestly attributed her success to the well-seasoned grill. Most Texas cooks will tell you she is right: there is no ingredient you can add that substitutes for the time in which those flavorings become baked into a cooking surface, transmitted to the food through a vague chemistry known to moms, grandmothers and small-town café owners.
We took our leave and dropped the top on Stella, M’Lissa’s Mustang convertible. Well nourished physically and looking forward to a sunny spring weekend full of music, we decided that the Texas Bob Wills still reigns over is a helluva place. We wanted more of that. So in the parking lot outside the Herring Bank in Vernon, Texas, the Empty Nesters decided to visit all of Texas’ 254 counties. Not in a drive-through-them- and-check-it-of-the-list-so-we-can-say-we-have-been-there way. More of an I-want-to-spend-enough- time-so-I-can-say-I-knew-you-kind-of-well way. An Empty Nester needs a goal and this one seems both worthy and fun.
We drove around Vernon for a bit. As befits an agricultural community, there is nothing fancy about Vernon. Our eyes were drawn to a theater that should re-open and a couple of motor courts that were once pretty stylish. That describes the outer limits of items of architectural interest. But the countryside is wide open as is the sky. Later in the summer, the ground will crack and the farmers will hope for rain. Eventually the Lord will provide. It has been that way forever and will stay that way for generations, a fact that I imagine comforts our new friends from the Herring Coffee Shop. Maybe the waitress will become a mountain climber or maybe she will end up owning the restaurant. Either way, they will kid her when they see her and she will know who is scrambled and who is over easy.
One down and 253 to go.