The first performance of the Bragg Jam on Saturday was not on the schedule.
It happened at the historic, soon-to-be-reopened H&H Restaurant. The music festival’s headline group, The Blind Boys of Alabama, stopped by and belted out the loveliest version of “Happy Birthday to You” you will ever hear.
They did it for Macon’s icon of soul food and Southern rock, “Mama” Louise Hudson. Hudson co-founded H&H in 1959 and operated it until it closed in December. The Moonhanger Group is renovating it and plans to reopen it Aug. 13.
On Saturday, the restaurant hosted a preview that also served as a celebration of Hudson’s 85th birthday. She did not know she would be serenaded by a five-time Grammy Award-winning group.
The open house drew a large crowd and visitors were served up many of the same dishes that made H&H popular for decades. Longtime patrons said the new owners seem to have gotten the food right, and they liked how they spruced up the place while still preserving its previous atmosphere.
The restaurant became famous for counting as loyal patrons the Allman Brothers Band and other musicians. When the Allmans were starting out and were low on funds, Hudson would often feed them for free and let them pay her back when they returned from a tour, said Kirsten West.
West is friends with Charles Driebe, the manager of The Blind Boys of Alabama, and she asked him if they might be willing to stop by and sing to Hudson before their Bragg Jam concert. Driebe lives in Atlanta, but has eaten at H&H many times and was well familiar with its history.
“Soul food restaurants are the kind of place where all ages, races and classes of people can get together and break bread and that’s a great thing,” Driebe said.
The Blind Boys entered the restaurant to a raucous round of applause. After sitting down for a meal, they stood up and sang for Hudson.
“Everything has just been so lovely,” Hudson said afterward. “I have enjoyed everything.”
She said she likes what the new owners did with the place, and she gave the food her stamp of approval. She said she has been enjoying “laying at home” since the restaurant closed, but she might come back to help it get off to a good restart.
“They want to know if I am back,” she said. “I will come around and mess around with them for a little while.”
The restaurant is still popular with young musicians. Among those eating there Saturday were Thomas Wynn and The Believers who were playing at Grant’s Lounge for Bragg Jam. They didn’t know it had closed until they were in town earlier this year and went by to find it locked up.
“We were pretty bummed out,” said David Wagner, who plays bass guitar. “We just wanted to come here and eat some good food and see some good people.”
Ben Moore, lead singer of The Blind Boys, gave a big thumbs up to the H&H meal he enjoyed.
“Is she married?” he asked of Hudson. “They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach and I think she won my heart.”
The Bragg Jam is in its 15th year and helped renew the Macon music scene. Tess Harper, co-chair of the festival, said Saturday evening that it was looking like a good crowd.
“This is definitely the biggest crowd we have ever had for Bragg Jam,” she said.
She attributed much of that to The Blind Boys of Alabama, which she said is the biggest group the festival has ever drawn.
People buy one ticket for the festival and can move from venue to venue in the downtown area to see different bands throughout the night.