Weekly jam sessions keep my dying hometown very much alive.
In the mid-seventies, while teenagers an hour and a half away in Houston frolicked at AstroWorld or did the hustle beneath twirling mirror balls, I rode my horse three miles into my hometown of Kenney to buy a huge Tootsie Roll for a nickel from Freitag’s General Store or learned to waltz at the Kenney Agricultural Society Hall. Though at the time I was peeved to be missing out on modern city life, I later came to prize my bumpkin years, especially as the Kenney I knew began to disappear, spiraling toward what seemed certain death.
But dead towns don’t jam, at least not like this one does on Thursday nights at the Kenney Store, the sole remaining business other than the post office. Sure, this tiny burg in the rolling hills south of Brenham is a mere shadow of its heyday self, when it boasted a cotton gin, taverns, churches, a gristmill, a couple of blacksmith shops, a hotel, a lumberyard, and a bank that was supposedly broken into so often that the insurers required the safe to be set in concrete. But the Kenney Store, which was always more beer bar than grocery, survived. And as the postmistress would inform me every time I went home to visit over the past year, the old place was actually thriving. I finally decided to check it out one evening this spring.
By seven o’clock, every mismatched table in the joint was packed with native sons and transplanted Houstonians (including former Harris County district attorney Johnny Holmes). In a corner by the double front doors, seven musicians gathered in a circle with guitars, a fiddle, a stand-up bass, and a harmonica, playing more to one another than to the audience. (Rumor has it that the number can swell to fifteen or more with spoons, squeeze box, and washtub added to the mix.) With unwavering sincerity, they belted out tunes ranging from “Waltz Across Texas ” to “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Jammers this night included die-hard regulars, like the district attorney and assistant DA from neighboring Bellville. (There must be a DA magnet under the store.) Honking freight trains that passed within spitting distance of the front porch frequently joined in, and breaks between songs were punctuated by the whoops of victorious domino players. A gaggle of stag men in hats—white-cowboy by far the current rage—corralled themselves by the bar. Keith Krause, who went to my high school and who’s a lifelong regular (“I live here,” he told me, stone-cold serious), didn’t let a little thing like a recent knee replacement stop him from joining others on the dance floor. The authenticity of the place could make you weep.
No one knows exactly how old the Kenney Store is (well over a hundred), but when James and Brenda Meissner bought it a couple years ago and made repairs, they found a newspaper printed in German under the floor. (It disintegrated before they could decipher a date.) The couple bought the store from James’ sister, who’d bought it fourteen years earlier from a man named Bobby Starbuck, who’d bought it from a Mr. Tiemann, who’d owned the place so long—back to before my time—that it doesn’t matter from whom he bought it. What does matter are the simple changes the Meissners have made—like pulling out storeroom walls to open up the place—and, more important, what they didn’t change: the tractor-seat bar stools worn smooth as glass, the longleaf-pine floors, and a wood-burning stove that’s a half-century old and serves as the only, but highly effective, source of heat. (Nine big windows and multiple ceiling fans handle all the cooling.) Framed snapshots celebrate moments in the store’s history, like the time Keith’s dad trotted a horse in the front door and sold him to a patron, as well as more-commonplace vignettes, like a quartet of regulars in their everyday pose: warming the bench on the front porch.
I suppose it only makes sense that Kenney has been revived by song, considering music’s constant presence there—both as a sound track for the glory years and as a dependable ventilator to ease it through its wheezing spells. Although the town was named after John Wesley Kenney, a Methodist circuit rider, polka music drowned out any Bible thumping in this German- and Czech-settled neck of the woods right off the bat. And old-timers used to tell me about the resident brass band Kenney had for fifty years and the special-excursion trains that brought people from Bellville to the Fourth of July dances at the Kenney Agricultural Society Hall, still home to this serious annual shindig. Elmer Freitag, the late owner of the late general store where I’d scored my Tootsie fix, once told me that Kenney “used to be what was called butter and egg and chicken and turkey and cotton country.” It’s time we added “jam” to the list.
THE KENNEY STORE
Music on Thursdays from around 7 to 10. Closed Mondays. 811 South Loop 497, off Texas Highway 36, about ten miles south of Brenham; 979-865-2404.
WHILE YOU’RE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD:
If you don’t want to spoil the country mood, you can stay nearby without ever traveling a main road. Five miles from Kenney, and even farther from nowhere, is Texas Ranch Life, an 1,800-acre working cattle ranch with a collection of restored historic homes for rent, including the elegant two-bedroom Lakehouse, where the only crowd you’ll encounter is the bison herd as it wanders by your window at sunrise (Bellville office, 979-865-3649; ranch, 800-839-2775; texasranchlife.com). Since edibles at the Kenney Store are limited to popcorn, summer sausage, and cheese, fuel up first at the Second Fiddle, a homey cafe in nearby Chappell Hill, where transplanted Louisianian Daniel Craven spikes his fried catfish, pork steaks, and chicken wings with Cajun spices (9002 FM 1371, 979-421-9200; open seven days a week).