Perhaps a comparison to Deliverance is unavoidable. After all, Snook Haven is way out in the sticks, located at the end of a tree-covered, narrow, pothole-filled dirt road on a north bank of the Myakka River. Although I-75 is a short distance away, it feels far away from the busy modern world. True, Burt Reynolds and the menacing hillbillies he faced in Deliverance are not here, but just as in the film, banjos can be heard through oak trees festooned with long tangles of gray moss. Strumming banjos. Hear them? The Gulf Coast Banjo Society is playing.
Every Thursday this time of year, from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., members from the banjo society perform for audiences at Snook Haven, right outside its small, tin-roofed bar-restaurant, known for barbecue and seafood.
A majority of attendees appear old enough to have enjoyed vaudeville. The musicians, likewise, are mostly elderly and perform Tin Pan Alley songs they grew up hearing. But there are surprises, like a saxophone solo of “Yakkity Sax,” popular in the 1950s.
And they sing. One banjo player holds a wireless microphone in one hand and props himself steady with a walking cane in the other hand as he croons, “...five-foot-two, eyes of blue...”
In front of him, an accordion player without teeth laughs along with the music. The audience sometimes sings along, clapping in time with the strumming banjos. The music is enriched by a variety of horns, guitars, an accordion, usually a violin, and drums.
Late fall and early winter are prime times to attend the performances. The weather tends to be pleasant and crowds of a few hundred attend. By spring, as many as 1,500 people will jam into a small area, some parking on River Road and walking the dirt road to the concert area.
The audience sits on wooden picnic tables and waves away the occasional ants that drip from overhead trees. Wait staff move among the tables, serving food ordered at a restaurant window 30 feet away. The preference seems to be barbecue with beer (30 labels to choose from) or a soft drink. But there are smokehouse ribs, chicken, pork, shrimp and fish available as well.
Joining the group is as simple as showing up at a concert and professing an interest to the director, says spokesman John Wolfe. He notes that the songs span eras from the late 1800s to the 1960s. And some are twisted to create new lyrics:
“Are you lonesome tonight,” Raymond Jacques begins singing, “because your tummy’s not right? Do you have your Mylanta and Tums? Does your memory stray to a bright, sunny day, when you had all your teeth and your gums?”
This audience understands. Suppressed laughter can be heard.
“Is your blood pressure up?” Jacques continues. “Good cholesterol down? Are you eating your low-fat cuisine? All that oat bran and fruit, Metamucil to boot, keeps you running like a well-oiled machine.”
The laughter gets louder.
The performers enjoy playing for a live audience as much as the audience enjoys the free music, Wolfe says.
“Many of us, myself included, have other outlets,” Wolfe explains. He plays taps at military funerals and plays other instruments besides the banjo. “But [Snook Haven] is fun for our guys and gals. There’s a lot of camaraderie.” And when an audience swells to a thousand or more late in the season, he says, “That’s a thrill.”
Established in 1988, today the Gulf Coast Banjo Society has about 50 members, but typically 25 to 30 show up for concerts. All dress in identical white trousers, turquoise shirts or jackets, giving a professional look on stage. The society has played concerts at Snook Haven for the past 30 years. Both the musicians and the restaurant benefit, although no money is exchanged for performances. Donations are sought during each concert, and the collected money goes to music programs serving young people.
“Although we have only been working with them for four years, we have grown to understand what is so special about them,” says Snook Haven manager Jenny Makowski. “You will never see anything else like this. The live performance captures American history throughout the past 100 years, with a special nod to our country’s veterans.”
The current season, which began in October, will end on the last Thursday in May.
And if your enthusiasm for free local concerts of niche genres goes beyond banjos, there’s the ukelele-playing Suncoast Sand Fleas of Nokomis to enjoy. October through July, the Sand Fleas play monthly at The Rhythm Inlet, 2301 Tamiami Trail N., Nokomis.
Banjos or ukeleles, take your…pick.