Chuck Terrell was relieved to make it through this August unscathed. In August 2021, he fell thirty feet from a ladder, which left part of his spine unmoored in his upper back. A year later, he finally had surgery to remove the part, which forced him to shut down Chuck’s Country Smokehouse, outside Carthage, for eight months. With the help of family, friends, and his staff, Terrell reopened the joint this February, but his road to recovery isn’t yet complete.
“Last year was the hardest year of my life, physically, mentally, and emotionally,” Terrell wrote in a social media post announcing his reopening. When we spoke this week, he was on his way to Tyler for a follow-up appointment with his doctor. “I’m not as far along as I’d anticipated being after a year,” he said, but after his ordeal, Terrell is lucky to be alive.
“I was going to the gym, and this [tree] limb had been bugging me,” Terrell recalled about what happened two years ago. He leaned an extension ladder on the offending tree, next to his driveway, and climbed it with a chain saw in hand. Once he cut through the limb, it hit the ground, unexpectedly bounced to the side, and took his ladder out from underneath him. When he landed, his upper back and the back of his head hit a stump. He had a concussion, and he doesn’t remember the fall. “I woke up in the ER,” he said.
Terrell’s girlfriend at the time found him. She called paramedics and Terrell’s mother, Jan Ritter. Two workers who’d been fixing Terrell’s fence also attended to him until the ambulance arrived. While they waited, Terrell insisted they change him into the barbecue T-shirt that’s his daily uniform at the restaurant. “Once I came to the realization I was going to the hospital, I had to have a barbecue shirt on,” he said. At least, that’s what he assumes about his intentions. He doesn’t remember saying any of it, but those around him say he was convinced there’d be paparazzi at the hospital. “The EMTs cut it off of me within the first two minutes,” Terrell said with a laugh. Now the shirt is hanging at the restaurant.
“Originally, [the doctor] told me nothing was broke,” Terrell said, so he went back to work three weeks later. After the concussion, Terrell had to wear earplugs at the restaurant because of the auditory overstimulation. Getting his staff back to work and serving the customers was important to Terrell, but there was another motivation in the back of his mind: he knew Texas Monthly was out on its search for the Top 50 list. “If there was any kind of chance of getting mentioned, I didn’t want to miss out on it,” he said.
The pain from Terrell’s broken spinous process (the scientific term for the bones that form the ridge along the back of your spine), which was undiagnosed, only got worse. “I kinda have the worst job for this particular deal,” he said, as if his pain could have been bearable with another profession. An MRI months later finally highlighted the problem, and surgery was scheduled. Terrell had planned to work right up until the surgery, but he had to close a month early. “I was literally crying in the back office, I was in so much pain,” he said.
Terrell’s recovery was slow. Two weeks after the procedure, he tore the muscle the surgeon cut through, and he’s still in therapy for that injury. He credits his staff for letting him ease back into the job after eight months off. Bryan Burgess loads and unloads the pit with meat and keeps wood in the firebox. Summer Stuart runs the register, and Rayanne Cumbie works with Ritter, Terrell’s mother, in the kitchen, where they prepare all the sides. His customers didn’t give him a breather, Terrell said: “As soon as we reopened, we were slammed, just right back at it.”
I visited recently to check in on Terrell and his barbecue, and the brisket has certainly changed for the better since I first wrote about the place eight years ago. During that first visit, I complained about the lean brisket. Now Terrell lets those briskets rest before slicing into them. He also smokes them slower, slices them more carefully, and adds beef tallow to the briskets when wrapping them in foil to keep them juicy. The changes have worked, because the lean slices were impressive.
Terrell suggested I try the mac and cheese, revamped by Ritter. Made with a white-cheddar sauce and al dente pasta, it was pleasantly creamy and not mushy. The pinto beans are made fresh with plenty of brisket chunks. “If it was not for my mother, I would not be able to restart,” Terrell said. It’s a twist, since Terrell first moved back to Carthage to look after his mother when her husband passed away.
Terrell said he’s got plenty of barbecue years left but is done with ladders. “It’s something I had done plenty of times before, but I will never do again,” he said of his amateur tree trimming.
Chuck’s is the quintessential back-road barbecue joint. While it’s a good fifteen minutes outside a small town, it attracts customers from around the world, as evidenced by the world map on the wall with pins stuck in South Africa, Bolivia, China, and Australia. Terrell said a former exchange student in the area from Japan brought his parents on their first trip away from Tokyo. “They wanted that Texas experience,” Terrell said, and he’s happy to be back providing it. Terrell missed that connection—and revenue—when the restaurant was closed, but he told me what’s important is that “I can walk. I can talk. I’m alive.”
Chuck’s Country Smokehouse
4934 FM 1970, Carthage
Hours: Wednesday–Thursday 11–2, Friday–Saturday 4–9
Pitmaster: Chuck Terrell
Method: Hickory, oak, and pecan in an offset smoker
Year opened: 2014