Ben Jones on being a ‘rebel spirit’ and relocating Cooter’s

The piano genius and master of good times “Fats” Waller loved to say, “One never know, do one?” Were truer words ever spoken? The unpredictability of life creates its daily zest and mystery, its tensions and joys. For one never knows when the bridge is out, or when the tire went flat, or how the New England Patriots could possibly win after they are down in the Super Bowl 28 to 3 in the third quarter. There are no sure things anymore, except of course that Donald Trump has absolutely no chance of becoming President of the USA, right?

A year ago our little store at Old Hollow Road was ripping happily along, with good food, fine times and a full parking lot. Folks were coming from all around the state, the nation, and the world to Cooter’s in the Country. A good time was being had by all. Well, almost all.

A little backstory: Alma and I opened our first Cooter’s Store out on 211 a couple of miles past Sperryville in the spring of 1999. It was an instant success, an unpretentious spot that featured bluegrass music, good food, and lots of classic cars. CNN covered it. The Associated Press did a piece, as did the Washington Post, USA Today, and believe it or not, Conde Nast Traveler. The two lane highway got crowded on weekends, but we heard very few complaints.

It was strictly a family venue, no booze, no cussin’, and nothing that the whole family couldn’t enjoy. Just for fun, I started singing with the bands, and it wasn’t long until “Cooter’s Garage Band” was touring the nation, playing County Fairs and Festivals, and performing on the stage that is every country boy’s dream, The Grand Ol’ Opry. We opened a store in Gatlinburg, Tennessee and then another in Nashville. In 2003 we decided to close our original store, and to just enjoy our Harris Hollow farm when we were not on the road.

In 2001 we had started doing a festival in Sperryville called DukesFest and it kept growing exponentially until it was necessary to move that show to the Bristol Motor Speedway. In 2006 we took it to Nashville. That year’s DukesFest was the largest gathering of fans for any T.V. show or film ever, when over 100,000 people showed up at the State Fairgrounds there. I am not making this up. The video of “Dukes” stuntman Corey Eubanks jumping a General Lee over 260 feet in front of that massive crowd is still stunning to me. With Alma’s great moxie and my, uh, “iffy” talent we had made a success of our little adventure that we couldn’t have imagined. That adventure continues to grow, even as old “Cooter” is starting to look more and more like Uncle Jesse Duke.

A series of orthopedic problems has kinda cramped my style in the past few years. Over time, I have had four total knee replacements in my right leg, an artificial left hip replacement and two major back operations which included a spinal fusion. Last June 1st, I fell and broke my right hip. I think I now have more metal parts in me than there is in my 1950 Studebaker.

Which sort of gets us to the spring of 2015, when we drove past the Old Hollow Store and saw that it was for lease. Alma and I had kicked around the idea of opening another store here, and if I had a dollar for everyone who told me how much they loved our first Sperryville store, I could just about buy Warren Buffett. And since I don’t travel as well as I did in my six decades of rambling, the Old Hollow location looked like a perfect place to re-create what we had done here before. And so we did.

We put a lot of time, money, and love into transforming that corner into a great place to shop and to just hang out. Our restaurant quickly got a reputation for fine Southern cooking, and people came from all around to meet our friends from “Hazzard County”. All of the contractors who did the renovation were from Rappahannock, our employees were all local, and our customers did a lot of spending in other Rapp shops and eateries.

Before we opened, then County Manager John McCarthy told us that we would need special permission from the Planning Commission to do occasional live music on the weekends. So we went to the Courthouse with our request. But before we said anything, real estate broker Sharon Luke launched into a series of demands and restrictions that would have made our concerts untenable. She seemed to be angry about something, but we were clueless to what her problem was and were completely blindsided by her attack. Commissioner Alvin Henry seemed to take charge of the meeting in what seemed to us to be an arrogant and condescending manner. He made absurd demands that would have greatly limited our number of customers, an impossible caveat that no serious business person could accept.

As the discussion descended into chaos between McCarthy, Henry, and other members of the commission (some of whom were favorable to our request) it became clear to us that we were dealing with some sort of “power-trip” by Mr. Henry. So we simply thanked them for their time and politely withdrew our request. At no time during the lengthy give-and-take was there any mention of a prohibition on parking behind the store. Commission Chairman Gary Settle said that he remembered the field as wet, but our landlord Dick McNear had put in a culvert which had dried the field perfectly. In fact, we did the deal on the assurance that we could park in the field and that had been included in our lease.

That very unpleasant experience was the only time that we had any dealings with the planning commission. So it was something of a shock to read the “puff piece” about Mr. Henry [‘Rappahannock planner dares to confront the future’] in the Feb. 16th issue of the Rappahannock News in which he falsely described a process that simply did not occur, a story in which he says of us, “He had water problems and I think that is probably why he ultimately left. It wasn’t a question that we didn’t deal with him. Every time we would start to deal with him he would walk out and withdraw (the) application. There was a situation there and we tried to address it, and he didn’t want to conform and work with us, and it didn’t work out.”

The problem with Mr. Henry’s comments is that no one brought up the issue of our parking for well over a year after we opened, and we used that field every one of those days without complaint. When the complaints came, they came in an orchestrated protest led by the aforementioned Ms. Luke and local art gallery owner Andrew Haley.

The owner of the property, Dick McNear, did approach the planning commission regarding this, but I was not even aware of the scheduled meeting. (At that point in time, I was in the hospital, unable to walk or move without great pain.) The breaking point for us was when, at another meeting of the planning commission where the issue was not on the agenda at all, Mr. Henry announced that he was “outraged” at us and led the body in a unanimous vote to have the county manager issue a “cease and desist” order to our business regarding something that had not been ever discussed between us either in person or at any of their scheduled meetings.

Now, the last time I checked Virginia State Law, the planning commission was created by Commonwealth statute to be an appointed body, its purpose to make recommendations to the board of supervisors. They cannot make law, or enforce whatever law they think they can make. In fact, the order was delusional and possibly an illegal action.

So not only did they not try to work with us, they never reached out to us, or visited us, or discussed it with us at all. Mr. Henry can take this to the bank: Closing our store had absolutely nothing to do with “water”, though there was a water problem on the property. We closed Cooter’s in the Country because we lacked the assurance of having the ability to park our customers, and without that ability we would simply be out of business. We built our business without any knowledge that the field was off limits, as it was a part of our lease. Other than the meeting about music over a year earlier, we had absolutely no contact with Mr. Henry or any of the other members of the planning commission.

When we announced our closing, several bordering counties immediately contacted us to invite us to bring our franchise to their localities. Since going to Page County, we have had extraordinarily gracious and helpful assistance from every county department, and we’ve been made welcome by all involved.

In a few years hence I expect I’ll be buried beneath the beautiful hills of Rappahannock, for we deeply love our home here, and we love our neighbors and our friends. And I swear that my rebel spirit will forever rankle the blowhards of local government.

But perhaps, as Bonaparte said, “One should never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.”

Ben Jones, a former U.S. congressman representing Georgia, is also a playwright and actor who starred in the role of Cooter Davenport in The Dukes of Hazzard