Praise the Lord … 

and This Sausage Gravy

No matter how white or white-haired the crowd at The Ironhorse Restaurant in Ashland last Saturday, they clapped and moved like a black Baptist church as best they could. There weren't any "amens!" heard from the audience, but judging by their participation and smiles, they're now converts to the church of Bubba Johnson.

Johnson, a native of Hanover County, was performing at the restaurant's first-ever gospel brunch. Six-top tables encouraged strangers to sit together, and The Ironhorse nicely matched the food to the music: heavy Southern specialties such as biscuits and sausage gravy, pork chops and baked chicken.

For a brunch, it was surprising to see only one egg dish, a frittata. The two large pork chops smothered in onions made the chicken breast option look skimpy, but plates were clean all around, and some people left with to-go boxes.

The food was good, but the entertainment was the main attraction. Johnson, along with four backup singers, a percussionist and a keyboardist, performed for about an hour. Johnson skillfully worked the crowd with familiar material ("Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" and "This Little Light of Mine"), stroking their egos — "You sure this ain't the Ironhorse Baptist Church?" — and cracking jokes — "I thought so until I saw a Bloody Mary."

His stage presence was matched by his talent. The band was just raw enough to seem straight from the church and polished enough to deliver a tight performance.

Johnson began singing in church when he was 17 and still sings at several area churches. He retired early from his state job to pursue his dream. He's self-released two albums and is working on a third.

A high point of the show occurred when the backup singers each picked a table and coached diners to chime in during a group song, Johnson playfully scolding a late table and cheering a loud one. The show made at least one churchgoer wish her church were as much fun. S

Another gospel brunch with Bubba Johnson takes place Saturday, Feb. 24, at 11 a.m. at The Ironhorse in Ashland. Tickets, which include the meal, a beverage and the performance, are $25 per person. Reservations required, 752-6410.

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