Popular Florida songwriter Amy Carol Webb left her friends' house in Dade City and headed toward the rolling hills where thousands had started gathering for the annual Will McLean Music Festival. But first she needed coffee and biscuits.
"Go to Tami's,'' her friends suggested.
It's not a place you would choose if you were just passing through town. You probably wouldn't even notice it on the U.S. 98 bypass, in a tiny strip center next to a dry cleaner. But if you're from Dade City, you know Tami's.
Webb, who lives in Miami, not only found a good breakfast, she found inspiration.
"When my college philosophy professor challenged us to be ready for the truth wherever it is, little did I know it would show up in a family diner one March morning in the middle of Florida!'' she later wrote on the cover of a CD single she called Country Breakfast.
It's just one of hundreds of songs Webb has written, but as she prepares for this week's 24th edition of the annual Willfest, Country Breakfast holds special meaning because she wrote it with Jan Glidewell. The retired Times columnist, who lives in Dade City and has written about or participated in the Willfest since its inception, was recently diagnosed with brain and lung cancer.
And by coincidence, Tami Lowery, who has owned the diner for 16 years, just last week completed chemotherapy for lung cancer.
"She's a fighter,'' said her daughter, Nikki Gold. It was Nikki who inspired the song eight years ago when she waited on Webb's table.
We sipped coffee til our breakfast came, taters and eggs and steaming bread,
But there where the butter should be, there was a tub of stuff called "spread.''
My beloved called out, "Scuse me, can I have real butter please?
Can't imagine putting this man-made stuff on biscuits good as these.''
But Nikki said, "Spread's all we got,'' and tossed her hair out of her face.
And my beloved cried, "What do you mean, this is a country place!''
Nikki said, "You're absolutely right, this is a country place,
And country people don't ask questions. They just eat what's on their plate.''
When Webb caught up with Glidewell at the music festival at the Sertoma Ranch, they had a good laugh about the exchange. He knew what most everyone else in Dade City knows — at Tami's, they don't coddle you. It's part of the atmosphere and customers enjoy it.
Glidewell had written some 3,000 columns for this newspaper, but he'd never tried writing a song. He is proud to see his name on the CD but admits it was mostly Webb's doing.
"My challenge,'' Webb said, "was to shape it into something that would rhyme and stay accurate. I don't make this stuff up. I just make it rhyme.''
Knowing we'd been proper told, we put that spread to use,
Cause there's nothin' like country breakfast served with a scoop of truth.
We cleaned our plates still laughin' hard with our faces all bright red,
And headed to Sertoma with Nikki's words still in our head.
At the festival, Webb joined more than 70 other artists celebrating the man considered the premier composer of songs and stories about Florida. Will McLean, a member of the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, died in 1990 but lives on in this annual three-day celebration among the giant oaks near Spring Lake. Country Breakfast is exactly the kind of song McLean would appreciate because it was a real experience in a real Florida town.
Six months later we were passing through, and Glidewell took us for a bite.
We were cravin' country breakfast and we knew Tami's does it right.
So we ordered grits and biscuits and then what did we behold
But right there on the table was real butter in the bowl.
So if you want to change the world in ways mighty and profound
Just ask for what you want and it just might come around.
And when you're lookin' for country breakfast served with butter or Parkay
With a side of love and a touch of home, stop at Tami's on your way.
• • •
Tuesday morning, I picked up Glidewell and drove over to Tami's. At 9 o'clock, all 44 chairs were taken. The CD sat on a shelf near framed photographs of Nikki and her sister, Kayci Smith. They grew up in the diner, surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins. Of the 10 employees there today, seven are related. Somebody had hung a ceramic ornament on the wall with this inscription: "Help Wanted. Anyone in this family qualifies.''
Because Webb has such wide following, Country Kitchen has sent travelers out of their way to find the diner, to sample the biscuits that Tami's husband, Doug, prepares at 4:30 a.m. before going to work at the county job he has held for 25 years. Glidewell was feeling well enough to polish off "Doug's Favorite,'' two eggs, country-fried steak, grits, biscuits and coffee for $7.
Tami, who grew up in the Dade City area, is feeling better but not quite up to working again just yet. When she got sick in November, the regular customers circled around her. "They were wonderful,'' said Kayci. "They even pitched in to buy her a wig.''
Nikki, who has accompanied her mom for 39 treatments, seemed plenty comfortable with the song's portrayal of that day in the diner. "It sounds about right,'' she said. "We treat everybody the same, like family. People come in grumpy and we try to make them smile by the time they leave.''
"It sure worked for us,'' said Webb. "I still smile about that day.''