CLYNE NIX cups his grease-stained hands around an imaginary banjo and picks a line of quick, almost audible notes. ``Old timey bluegrass,'' he explains, his tanned face smiling. ``I been playing it 25 years.'' Then the bulldozer operator returns to wolfing down his lunch. He's on a 30-minute break from his job moving granite at a nearby stone quarry, and even at Ward's buffet, that isn't much time.
He'll have more time Saturday night, when he and other working folks bring their banjos, guitars, and ``doghouse'' basses here to Ward's Family Restaurant. Then, Elsie Ward and her nieces, Pam Sanders and Linda Ledford, will clear away dinner plates from the two dozen tables. Tommy Godfrey and the Cherry Log Pickers will hold forth on the bandstand, and kids, couples, and oldsters will clog and clap to old timey picking - turning this little eating place into a country and bluegrass jamboree.
You make your own fun in Cherry Log, a small town (pop., 300) in the foothills of the Appalachians, linked to the world by one road, Highway 76. Those who have been making their own fun all their lives know the essential ingredients. ``You don't make a bunch of money in here,'' concedes proprietor Elsie Ward, a middle-aged woman in a red apron and jeans. The restaurant serves no alcohol and only recently began a $2 minimum charge on Saturday nights. ``We have a good time anyway,'' she says complacently, her hands on her hips.
``Anybody that comes in here, I don't care how good they are or how bad they are, they get their chance to play if they wants to,'' says bandleader Godfrey, who is eating lunch today with his grandson, Chip. For 30 years Godfrey worked in the copper mines in Tennessee, running an elevator in a mine shaft. But the copper mines are all closed now, and for the last two years he has been free to sing and play his guitar whenever he likes. That includes most Saturday nights at Ward's.
The down-home restaurant with its piano and bandstand have been a fixture in Cherry Log for years, although management has occasionally changed hands. Two summers ago the little wooden building was closed for three months, until Mrs. Ward, who had previously worked as a bookkeeper and managed a store, rented the place and reopened it. She painted the walls, added new tablecloths, and kept everything else just as it was.
Regular customers breathed a sigh of relief and hurried back to their favorite tables. Under Ward's management and the care of Mrs. Sanders and Mrs. Ledford, ``the food's better, service is better, place is cleaner,'' says Johnny Bearden, a customer.
Mr. Bearden should know, since he has eaten here every Monday through Saturday for nearly five years. On weekends he comes in to listen to bluegrass, too. ``I don't see no cause to change when the food's good and the people's good,'' the auto-body shop owner reasons, between bites of a barbecue sandwich.
You can tell the kind of place this is when you walk in the door, says Dwight Walls, a trucker who is hauling a load of steel south from Ohio. Mr. Walls is the first customer in the restaurant today, showing up at 9:30 and ignoring a sign on the door that reads ``OPEN 11:00-7:00.'' Linda Ledford ignores the sign too, seating Walls near the wood stove.
``We serve breakfast,'' she assures him. ``We serve it when the truckers want it.''
Sanders begins setting up the buffet (a meat and three vegetables for $2.95), while talking about the baby she is expecting. The mother of two school-age children, whose husband is a construction worker, will keep the baby in a playpen at the restaurant. ``We're three women here; why not have the baby here?''
When the first of the noon crowd arrives, Sanders is on the floor, greeting customers and taking orders, and in a moment Ward is pouring hot coffee. Without really seeming to rush, they wait on tables, clear them, work the register, and chat with friends, without leaving anyone waiting long for service. After all, Clyne Nix isn't the only one who has to be back at his job in 30 minutes.
But even in the lunch-time rush, customers say they relax and enjoy the restaurant's feeling of camaraderie.
``It's a sort of gathering place,'' says Jimmy Cantrell, pulling up a chair beside his old friend Johnny Bearden. ``A lot of the same people come here every day.''
Local customers favor the barbecue sandwich. Here in the southern Appalachians, the vinegar and chili seasoning on pit-cooked pork barbecue can provoke days of passionate debate. Bearden rates Ward's barbecue 9 on a scale of 1 to 10. Another customer rates it a 7. A third recommends the buffet, which features hamburger stew, okra, collards, corn, corn bread, and biscuits, and gets generally high marks from a crowd clearly partial to regional specialties.
Many of these same faces are back later in the day, to continue their conversations at a leisurely pace. And on Saturday nights they are back with their families, to make music, dance, and watch their neighbors and any passing strangers, who are welcome to drop in.
Tommy Godfrey says that occasionally big-name fiddlers and country music stars on their way to mountain fiddlers' conventions have stopped by and played a few sets with the band. This clearly tickles him, and he mentions that he has cut a couple of records in Nashville himself in his time. But the music that he and other local musicians prefer are the rarely recorded traditional bluegrass tunes, whose appeal has nestled in the mountain valleys. ``We play some Top 10, Randy Travis tunes,'' he says. ``But mostly we like the old stuff.''
On Saturday nights Ward's husband, Mack, comes in to patrol the parking lot and keep an eye on goings on, and the establishment run by three women has had few problems. The spirit of the place is a barn-raising friendliness, woven with some cherished north Georgia traditions.