"Chicken Dinner Road": Highway to Happy

GARDEN CITY, Idaho (KBOI) - It's a Friday night at the Kilted Dragon, and "Chicken Dinner Road" is singing up a storm in a corner of the brewpub.

To watch them perform, you'd think they're a chart-topper on tour, because these five guys play bluegrass with such passion, there's no looking away.

Do that and you risk losing your link to the electricity on stage, like putting a cloud between you and the sun.

The current group is as diverse as the instruments they play, boasting both a certified pilot and a retired nuclear physicist.

There's lead singer Dennis Stokes on mandolin; John Blakley on bass; Rue Frisbee on fiddle; L.B. Robertson on guitar; and Gary Eller on the banjo.

Apart from their shared love of bluegrass, what keeps them in line and on fire as musicians is the quiet leadership of Stokes.

"We set our sights on putting smiles on people's faces," he says between sets, "and hope they're having as good a time as we are."

Stokes is from a small town in the Florida Panhandle, if that isn't already clear from his "just-this-side-of-Texas" twang.

In his ball cap and blue jeans, Stokes is the epitome of country cool, but it's not a costume he dons for the stage. He's authentically a man who understands a life of dusty roads and rising at dawn to provide for his family.

"A musician's life is no place for a young family, I don't believe," he says.

Stokes might be daring by night, but he's most definitely "dairy" by day--a nutritionist whose specialty is cows and keeping them healthy.

It's no exaggeration to say he spends more time with cows than clients, like the guys who run Sunridge Dairy in Nampa.

Stokes arrives with rubber gloves tucked into a back pocket and sturdy rubber boots on his feet because these are necessities as he goes to work at the business end of a herd of cows.

He walks a reporter over to some animal feed and kneels for a better look.

"I'll pick up feed with my hands and swirl it around, look at it, feel it a little bit. Feel the moisture."

The feed has a light-green color and smells like freshly-mown hay, although it contains other ingredients.

Stokes takes a handful and examines it closely, checking for particle size and traces of mold.

"A lot of science can go on in moist feed," he explains.

Because cows have a refined sense of smell, Stokes says they're picky eaters.

"We don't want the cow to have a choice about which ingredients she can eat more of."

It's almost seems that he has to pull a fast one on these animals, like you would a two-year-old who'd rather play with his food than eat it.

When it's suggested he's like a chef, he says, "Absolutely. I'm a chef for dairy cows."

It's not enough, though, that Stokes knows what goes into each cow. He also has to know what comes out.

He jokes that he can stand with his back to a herd and judge the success of the diet he's prescribed by the "music" of digestion, and the "notes" that it leaves behind.

And he's trained to read those notes the way a soothsayer might read tea leaves.

Stokes admits his day job isn't for the faint of heart or for anyone with a delicate sense of smell.

But he provides a necessary service to an industry still considered vital to the Boise economy.

When asked for the difference between what he does and what a veterinarian does, Stokes says it's simple: "A vet takes care of the overall health of the animal; I'm all about boosting milk production."

You get a sense that Dennis Stokes is not one but two people: the quiet family man who communes with cows, and the rockabilly performer so at ease on stage that he seems born to it.

In a soft twang, he says, "I feel it's a talent God gave me and I need to share it with others."

He walks into the office at Sunridge and greets the owners with a cheery "Hey, guys."

Then he delivers a report that's brief and to the point.

"Feeder's doing an awesome job with the feed and the manure's telling me about the same thing."

It's clear that Dennis Stokes blends his day job very nicely with his nights on stage, something he says he couldn't accomplish without the support of a very understanding wife.

"Music's part of my life," he points out, "but I think I know where it belongs. And I'm gonna have fun with it while I can."

Local audiences are having fun, too, with weekly excursions on "Chicken Dinner Road," the highway to happy.