By Sally Voth
It's been 35 years since Ben Jones first started playing the sleeve-eschewing Cooter on the Dukes of Hazzard, but his character continues to delight fans.
Jones will have the chance to entertain those fans and make new ones as he and his friends and fellow musicians shoot a pilot variety show this Saturday at The Yellow Barn in Quicksburg.
"Shenandoah Jamboree" will feature Cooter's Garage Band, which includes his friends Robby and Lisa Meadows of Stanley, and various guests.
"I'm kind of excited about this," said Jones, sitting in a rocking chair Wednesday morning at The Yellow Barn. "I ain't blowing smoke. It's hard for me to get fired up."
The Yellow Barn opened across from Shenandoah Caverns several years ago and features a nostalgic collection of parade floats, including a giant treehouse with squirrels, wagons, antique cars, toys, craft gifts, storefronts, Christmas ornaments, and assorted Americana.
As Jones said, his eyes lifted toward the ceiling, "How often do you look up and see a scale crop duster?"
A resident of Rappahannock County -- where he used to have Cooter's Garage, a Dukes of Hazzard museum, fan store and restaurant with his wife Alma Viator -- Jones pointed out he's been an entertainer for more than 50 years, and enjoyed a varied career. Besides his acting roles, he served as a two-term congressman in Georgia and is an author.
"I've also done a lot of singing now, which I didn't start out to do, but which I've loved more than anything," Jones said.
He said Meadows was as a good musician as any in the nation.
"That we live here is just a joy," Jones said of the Shenandoah Valley. "This is home, and we get to be home and we get to do this from here in the most beautiful place, I believe, maybe on the planet."
Shenandoah Caverns, which includes not just the cave, of course, but The Yellow Barn, American Celebration on Parade and Main Street of Yesteryear, is "a wonderful family attraction" amidst a beautiful landscape in Jones' estimation.
"Just driving here is like this splendid vacation," he said. "We've got the perfect location. We've got the perfect venue. You just walk in here and start smiling. We've got a great band, and there's no reason for it not to become something maybe permanent around here."
Jones said he envisions Shenandoah Jamboree becoming a tourist destination, such as the Grand Ole Opry or Renfro Valley in Kentucky.
Born in North Carolina, but raised in Portsmouth, Jones isn't a trained singer, but admitted to "caterwauling around the house."
"I'm not a singer," he said. "I'm an actor. I just get up here and act like a singer."
As he talked, Pat and Jerry Fisher of Maurertown came to the barn to pick up tickets for Saturday's show.
"I'm bringing my grandson," Mrs. Fisher said. "He loves the General Lee."
She said she'd saved a lot of her sons' Dukes of Hazzard toys.
It was a typical encounter Jones has with fans. He noted the show was seen in more than 50 countries.
Filming on the series, which ran for six years, started in 1978, according to Jones.
"That it continues to resonate so broadly and deeply with the heartland of America, particularly..." Jones, 71, said.
He pointed out that when the Dukes of Hazzard started, there were only three major networks and cable was just beginning, so 40-50 million people on Friday nights "welcomed us into their homes and we sort of became part of their family."
"Our show continues to succeed because of the values of the show -- good guys win, they do the right thing, the Duke boys made the right moral choice," Jones said. "The Dukes of Hazzard is a permanent blessing for me. I just have so much fun with it."
He joked that the Dodge Charger, nicknamed the General Lee, which his mechanic character often had to fix up, was "really the only character from the show that's not aged. No gray hair, no leaks, no rust."
The General Lee will be at Saturday's pilot show. Jones and the surviving cast members still see each other, last getting together in August in Rappahannock County.
"Just doing this stuff keeps us going, keeps us happy," Jones said. "It's hard to be unhappy with people just loving you up all the time. We're blessed to have the affection of several generations of American families, especially the heartland of America."
Lisa Meadows remembers curling up on the couch with her dad on Friday nights to catch the show, which, Jones pointed out, featured many musicians and good music. Waylon Jennings was the narrator and sang the theme song.
"This [Shenandoah Jamboree] is a natural," Jones said. "That's what makes me think we will have a good time Saturday night, but we're hoping there will be many more Saturday nights. We've got the right venue. We've got the right band. We've got the right idea. What's not to like? I think that folks are going to leave here feeling like they've heard some really good music and had a good time."
He has a hard time pinning down what musical style Cooter's Garage Band performs.
"I call it southern music because that covers most of American music," Jones said. "It's a country band, but we can play a lot of genres. People would call us probably a country or country rock band, or something like that."
Meadows said her family's friendship with Jones has led to their performing at the Grand Ole Opry, something a performer's band usually doesn't get to do. They also performed on Virginia Dreams Center Stage for several years, among other gigs.
"My kids, when they were little, used to think he was their other granddaddy," Meadows said. "We've become a family. It's hard to find people in this business that are loyal and that are truly your friend, and we found that in Ben and Alma."
Tickets are $10, and available by calling 540 477-2432.
Contact staff writer Sally Voth at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org