Hashbrowns and harmonies

Owl remains music draw for region on Saturday mornings
By: 
CHRIS MCCONNELL
Outlook staff writer
LaLonnie Larson of the band Highway 302 sings a Carter Family classic, “When the Springtime Comes Again,” at the Owl Cafe on Saturday morning while Jim McGowen, of Joliet, plays banjo in the background.
LaLonnie Larson of the band Highway 302 sings a Carter Family classic, “When the Springtime Comes Again,” at the Owl Cafe on Saturday morning while Jim McGowen, of Joliet, plays banjo in the background.

John Letcher was instrumental in reviving a Saturday morning music tradition that began in Molt in 2001. Now the Owl Cafe is the only place in Laurel hosting weekly music, and the only restaurant in the region that offers “breakfast and bluegrass.”
Letcher wanted to continue the Saturday morning music and breakfast tradition that started at the former Prairie Winds Cafe in Molt, and ended when it closed in 2013.
When Letcher learned Kathy Boyd purchased the Owl Cafe 2015, he came up with a unique way to get involved.
“I came the first week it opened and carried a ‘will work for food’ sign out front until Kathy came out and told me I was embarrassing her,” he said.
He washed dishes for two hours, then told Boyd, “You get a dishwasher and I’ll pour coffee.”
Letcher’s admitted lack of music ability–“I can’t even tap my foot to music”–is inconsequential as he hosts the weekly event and books all the acts. He also takes some of the load off the servers when the cafe is packed by pouring coffee and socializing with customers.
He said people sometimes ask Boyd if he is the manager, to which she replies: “No, we just let him think he is.”
Letcher, a retired trucker who logged 4.5 million miles in 31 years, has only missed three Saturday’s since the tradition moved to the new location January 2015.
He said he is always looking for bands to play.
“Fifteen acts have played regularly at one time or another, but bands tend to come and go.”
Letcher books the music two months out because he said doesn’t want the stress of scrambling to find music each week.
The musicians get tips, but really do “work for food,” as each band member gets a free breakfast as payment from the Owl.
The cafe is usually packed on Saturday mornings with up to 200 meals served between 9 a.m. and noon to patrons from all over the county, and sometimes from out of state.
“We get tourists passing through, but 50 percent of the traffic comes from Billings,” Letcher said.
Travelers from Minnesota and North Dakota were in attendance this past Saturday, as well as some regulars from Billings.
Phyllis and Garry Slabauch, of Billings, were enjoying the music Saturday morning. This was far from their first visit.
“We have only missed four Saturdays in 2 1/2 years,” she said, “It has a hometown feel and we like the variety of music we hear.”
Phyllis was a singer and musician in a gospel band for years and she said she doesn’t just like bluegrass music.
“I like all kinds of music but we have our favorites [at the Owl]. We loved Hillbillings, but they broke up,” she said.
This past Saturday featured the Highway 302 band, and included musicians from Molt to Joliet. The lineup included Larry Larson on guitar, LaLonnie Larson on mandolin, Bonnie Zieske on upright bass, Arlan Ellis on dobro, Clayton Olson on mandolin and Jim McGowen on banjo.
Olson said they’ve been playing together in various lineups for more than 20 years and always play the Owl on the first Saturday of every month.
They played a variety of traditional songs and country and bluegrass standards, including Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train,” “Red Wing,” Tom Paxson’s “The Last thing on my Mind,” “Blackberry Blossom” and several Carter Family classics.
On Saturday the ‘Fiddling’ Ferch Family and Friends will be playing at the Owl Cafe, with the music starting at 9 a.m. and ending at noon.

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