“Try to play so we can keep up with you,” said a guy seated among a motley crew of musicians wielding a medley of instruments.
With that, another man clutching a banjo split a smile, softly chuckled and started to pick.
Feet began to stomp, hands clapped and table tops were thumped to create a beat as an assortment of strings were vigorously plucked and strummed. The soon room erupted into a boisterous chorus of bluegrass voices.
And so it goes every Sunday at the Millersburg General Store.
It all starts around 4 p.m. at this all-in-one restaurant, tavern, convenience store and gas station in the Bond County hamlet of Pierron, although there is no exact curtain time on the show. Musicians trickle in, one by one. Throughout the night, they come and they go as their schedules allow, but every week, the music resounds.
It’s a little different each time, depending on who’s there. The band’s composition, which at times could be as many as 20, might include any number of banjos, fiddles, guitars, steel guitars and mandolins. There might even be someone jamming on a washtub, washboard or with a pair of spoons. Anyone with the notion is welcome to join in.
“It is a very enjoyable evening, lots of good music and lots of camaraderie,” said store regular Eve Lyn Kerwin. “If you don’t know anyone when you get here, you will when you leave.”
Warm nights will draw the circle outside, but during the winter, the store is packed wall to wall with people who come to have a drink and sing along to tunes memorized ages ago.
There’s no set list. Every musician takes turns leading and naming favorite songs. The occasional break between songs will be filled with requests shouted from the crowd.
“‘It’s a Great Day,’” one patron called out.
“‘Rabbit in a Hole,’” appealed another.
Though they might not know their last names, regulars easily recognize some of the usual players, including Ramblin’ Randall and the famous Brutus.
“Everyone from here to there and everywhere knows me as just, ‘Brutus,’ and that’s good enough for me,” says a man with a long, white goatee dressed in a flannel shirt and bib overalls, cradling a six-string guitar in his bear-like paws.
Brutus has been part of the tradition for 12 years, which began just as a fun way to spend a Sunday but evolved into an institution.
“I do it just to please myself,” Brutus said. “But sometimes, I just end up pleasing somebody else.”
Please them, it does.
“We look forward to it every week,” Kerwin said.
Early Sunday mornings offer a different sort of symphony outside the store.
The air reverberates with crackles of fire in a forge, accompanied by the tink, tink, tink of a hammer slamming into an anvil, followed by the hiss of steam rolling off hot steel being quenched in cold water.
This is where Josh Rench and his friend Dave MacElvain execute their blacksmith trade.
Rench, whose parents Joe and Rhonda own the store, has been practicing the craft about a year with MacElvain, who initially inspired him to pursue the trade. They both fell in love with it because they can recycle objects otherwise meant for the landfill.
They mainly create custom knives. Their trade has also ended up having a residual benefit. It started drawing spectators. Now, every Sunday, starting between 9 and 10 a.m., the pair demonstrate the craft to anyone willing to “dive right in.”
“It’s a way to teach people that things are still made in America,” MacElvain said.
“Come out, sit and watch,” said Rench.
In the future, they want to expand, forging swords as well as their own steel. They may even take on apprentices. In the meantime, they will accommodate anyone wanting to just take a whack at it.
“If anyone wants to really get into it, you can come out here and hammer some metal,” Rench said.
Millersburg General Store at a glance
Address: 613 Illinois Route 143, Pocahontas
Phone: (618) 669-2155
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday through Sunday, 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.