South of La Plata, along Route 301, there's an enormous billboard for Capt' Billy's Crab House. It's packed with information about steamed crabs, soft shells, oysters, shrimp, hours of operation, more words than you could ever read while zooming by well over the speed limit (ahem).

But one line jumps out: "Beautiful View of Potomac River Bridge!"

My right foot moves from accelerator to brake. I spin back northbound on 301 to go for another look at the sign.

Potomac River Bridge. Hmmmm. I pull out my Charles County AAA map. Well, looky there. A bridge. The Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge.

Now, I've lived in Washington on and off for more than 30 years, and I couldn't have told you of the existance of the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge. The scope of my ignorance bubbles in my brain. Shame soon follows. What kind of Washingtonian am I to be so clueless? I stare at the map I'm holding against the steering wheel. Southern Maryland might as well be Zimbabwe for all I know about it.

Port Tobacco. Cobb Island. Pomonkey. Nanjemoy. Ironsides. Mason Springs. The names taunt me. Clearly it's time to widen my horizons. I'm on a late-night run to the drag races at Budds Creek (another first), but I resolve to get back to view this mysterious bridge and find out more about what folks in this part of Maryland do when the sun goes down.

v

Most of Charles County seems to be in line to eat crabs when my traveling pal and I finally follow the billboard's arrow down Popes Creek Road.

It's a three-mile drive from 301 to Capt' Billy's, past desiccated fields of corn, tall and brown. Past roadside markers that tell of John Wilkes Booth's fugitive flight toward the river here 135 years ago. Well, I'm guessing they do. His name jumps out at us, but we don't stop to read about him. We're hungry.

The gravel parking lot is packed with cars whose passengers are waiting more than an hour for tables at Capt' Billy's (11455 Popes Creek Rd., Popes Creek; 301/932-4323) and its neighbor, Robertson's Crab House (11455 Popes Creek Rd., Popes Creek; 301/934-3300) (both are owned and operated by "Captain" Billy Robertson). Who's got that kind of time? I wonder. Lots and lots of folks, apparently. Life rolls along a little slower down in Southern Maryland, and Capt' Billy's is as good a place as any to learn that lesson.

The hostess tells us that we can order food at the bar. We find some stools and belly up. The wait for food is long, but the crowded restaurant is a good distraction. People have been ripping apart Billy Robertson's blue crabs since 1949, and there are probably a few 50-year regulars in the crowd tonight.

The crab cakes are acceptable if not exceptional, and when they're gone, suddenly the sound of people hammering their crab legs with tiny mallets becomes overwhelming. The trays of crab carcasses are too much. It's time to head outside for a look at the real reason Capt' Billy's is so popular: location.

There are surprisingly few folks eating out on the deck overlooking this sweeping bend in the Potomac River. True, there's no air-conditioning outside, but the view! There, indeed, is the "Potomac River Bridge," a huge span heading off into the mists of Virginia. And to the right is the real show. Sunset.

We sit on the dock in front of Capt' Billy's and watch the thick, orange ball of sun sink into the reddening clouds. Its reflection across the water makes the river glow. Soon it's gone, and night in Southern Maryland has begun.

Capt' Billy's is open every night until 10 p.m., a fact that makes it as much a nighttime destination as anywhere in Charles County, but it's not really a night life destination. Pulling out of the parking lot I hear tell-tale sounds of night life: drums. There's a snare drum being hit over and over again. Then the kick drum. Then cymbals. It's a sound check! Where's it coming from?

A quick drive 100 yards downriver from Capt' Billy's gives us the answer: Pier III Crab House & Beach Club (11535 Popes Creek Rd.; 301/259-4514). Owner Tom Jenkins has been at it here since 1988 and proclaims his joint "the undiscovered jewel of Southern Maryland." Well, maybe not quite a jewel, but a dang nice place to catch the end of the sunset and then hear some live music. The crab cakes (I found out another night) are tasty, if a tad salty. The beer is cold.

Jenkins takes a page from Seacrets in Ocean City by trucking in lots of sand and bringing dozens of palm trees from Florida every year to make an outdoor "beach" playground, complete with volleyball courts, a kids' area, a stage for the bands (cover bands, mostly, playing predictable stuff like Jimmy Buffett and Bob Seger), a bar in an old boat. It's very easy to squiggle your toes in the sand and watch the river roll by. I think I'm getting the hang of this Southern Maryland thing.

Ten miles due west of the Pier III, just over the St. Mary's county line, is Budds Creek, site of three different racetracks, but the one I visit is the Maryland International Raceway (27861 Budds Creek Rd.; 301/884-9833), owned and operated for the past 10 years by Royce Miller. It's a Friday night, the night the MIR holds the "Speed Unlimited Midnight Madness Street Car Series" on its quarter-mile drag strip. It's a night designed for locals, with races for "street legal" cars only, who speed down the strip in about 13 seconds. You can soup them up, but not too much.

In the parking lot, the cars roll up to register. Up to 250 vehicles come every Friday (through October) for the chance at a trophy and a little cash. Most of the drivers are clearly regulars and the competition is friendly. Gates open at 6:30 on Fridays, and the elimination rounds start at 10 p.m. and go 'til past midnight.

One man who's there nearly every week is Rick Bolton of Chaney's Tire & Auto, one of the evening's sponsors. "I'm from Southern Maryland, born and raised within 10 miles of this track," he says proudly, in that rich local accent.

"I first came down here to race when I was 16, driving my mom's Plymouth Fury station wagon." Did she know what he was doing when he borrowed her car? "Oh, no, but she eventually figured it out. So then my aunt gave me her '63 Bonneville four-door hardtop, and I raced that."

Bolton still races sometimes on Saturday nights in the "Speed Unlimited E.T. Series" races, basically a local semi-pro night (races end around 10:30 on Saturday nights). "But even if I'm not racing, I come out, give away toys to the kids, beach balls, cases of oil to the drivers that lose. I like it here."

He points to the folks sitting in the area marked "Family Section: No Alcohol Beyond This Point." "See, they do everything they can to make it a place for the whole family. I don't drink, don't do drugs. I'm not a nightclub person. And this track is a nighttime option. Kids can keep out of trouble, and they get to see everything up close. At a nightclub you can't go behind the bar or in the DJ booth. Here you can go into the pits and talk to mechanics, talk to the drivers, go up in the tower, find out how everything works. I love this place. It's like our little hidden specialty down here." For your belly, there's a little shack where you can buy food (burgers, dogs, chicken wings, pizza) and drinks (beer and soda).

And for sheer magnitude of power, you might consider heading down to the MIR this Saturday for the Jet Car Nationals, a big-deal race that's exactly what it sounds like.

v

As you head back north up 301, you pass run-down motels and liquor stores with drive-in windows (a standard feature in this part of the world). You might consider a stop at Apehangers (9100 Crain Highway, Bel Alton; 301/753-1650), the local Harley riders' hangout, for some classic rock courtesy of the band Snakebite.

About a mile south of La Plata, there's a roadside landmark worthy of a stop: Twin Kiss (7415 Crain Hwy.; 301/934-4025), one of those hamburger-and-ice cream stands that seems like it's been there forever. It's open until 10 p.m. every night and has been packed every time I've driven by, people lined up for an enormous swirl of soft ice cream or a batch of their batter-dipped onion rings (worth the trip all by themselves).

In La Plata, make a left off 301 onto Port Tobacco Road. You're passing through what used to be one of the most prosperous parts of Maryland. If you're there during daylight hours, you'll still see evidence of that prosperity in the number of old tobacco barns scattered around the countryside. Port Tobacco itself used to be a busy little shipping spot, where boats would load up the local tobacco crop and haul it to Baltimore.

On the right, after about five miles, you'll see a brick and stone building, home to the Blue Dog Saloon (7940 Port Tobacco Rd.; 301/932-1740). It's a charming two-room bar with a stage and a couple of pool tables. Old license plates hang from the wall, and employee "Biff" Cline makes sure that folks behave. "Watch out for Biff," says owner Bryon Creech with a laugh. "He's in the Washington Boxing Hall of Fame."

Creech took over as owner just a month ago, but he's already made his mark, using skills from his day job as a general contractor. "We put a sign up," he says. "Never had a sign up before." So what's the blue dog?

"Well, that's a local legend," he says, gearing up for the tale. "Back when Port Tobacco was a busy port, there was a lot of money flowing. There was one gentleman who always had a blue tick hound by his side. One night he went into a tavern around here and he showed a lot of money around. When he left that night, some guys jumped him and killed him, and I'm not sure if they killed the dog, too, but I guess they must have.

"They hid the money under a rock on the Rose Hill plantation, and then ran off. They came back for the money one night, and the next day the people on the plantation found the bodies beside the rock. It was the ghost of the blue dog killed them and left them lying by the rock."

Wow. So does the hound still prowl the area? "You might hear him howling some nights, sure." And is this the tavern where the man was flashing his cash? "Oh, no. It's just been a bar for about six or seven years. ... The building's just 70 years old, and the legend's a lot older 'n that."

Inside the club, the Reivers are onstage, playing southern rock covers to an appreciative crowd. Not to be confused with the Texas band of the same name from about 15 years ago, these Reivers also take their name from the William Faulkner novel (I get huge points with band leader Jim Morris for saying, "Hey, Faulkner!" when he tells me the band's name so's I can write it down). But after a few songs, it's time to go.

North of the Blue Dog, close to Indian Head Highway, you'll find the Lone Star Cafe (4300 Hawthorne Rd.; 301/743-3931).

Inside, there's a band playing, named Roadhouse, which is just right.

The bartender gives me a long eye when I ask her for a Bud. The rows of regulars at the bar are looking at me funny, too. The bartender asks me for ID. She slowly hands it back, and I finally get my beer. The front room is filled with guys playing pool. I'm verrrry careful to not bump into any of them as I slide past them into the back room where the band is playing "Tell It Like It Is," well enough that some couples are slowly moving on the dance floor.

I find a dark corner and eavesdrop: "If they play `Unchained Melody' you're gonna have to take me outside 'cause I'll be cryin' so bad, I guaran-damn-tee it." The words are from a tall blonde with feathered hair.

For serious dancing and slightly better live music head back to 301 just north of Waldorf. There you'll find Spurs (Pinefield South Shopping Center, Waldorf; 301/843-9964), a country & western dance club stuck in the corner of a big shopping plaza.

Murals of cowboys in the Sonora Desert look down on the rows of line-dancers that fill the huge dance floor the night I'm there. The music is from Midnight Rodeo, a competent cover band that seems to favor George Strait songs. The place's decorative scheme is equal parts little Christmas tree lights and Keno screens. There's very little smoke. No rowdiness. And while the big square bar by the front door is full, there's not much heavy drinking going on, according to manager Yvonne Zywusko. That fact spells trouble for the club. "People come to dance and not to drink," she says, "so the place doesn't make the money it should be making."

There are fliers posted that say "Spurs may have to close its doors! We need your help!" There's a group called "Friends of Spurs" that holds meetings to find ways to keep it open. There's a Web site (www.olg.com/spurs) to help rally the faithful. And there are dance lessons and music in styles other than country to attract a broader crowd.

Given the shopping mall atmosphere of the club, it's hard to feel comfortable in Spurs unless you're out on the dance floor paying no mind to the decor.

But it would be sad if it went under, sadder still for those steady customers who just want a place to dance without any nonsense.

Speaking of no-nonsense dancing, that's just what goes on at the R&B roadhouses like Ford's Wonderbar (4595 Livingston Rd.; 301/283-5324) and Lamont's Night Club & Picnic Grounds (4400 Livingston Rd.; 301/283-0225) in Pomonkey, a couple of miles down Route 224 from Indian Head Highway.

One of the best soul/blues bands in the Washington area, the Hardway Connection, is also one of the most popular bands in Southern Maryland and they're playing at Ford's on my first visit. It's a Sunday (they play the last Sunday of every month beginning at 4 p.m.) and when I get there at 6 p.m. the place is buzzing, the dance floor packed. Two ceiling fans spin over the dancers, who are wearing out the linoleum floor. Most of the men are wearing very sharp straw hats.

"We get quite a crowd on Sundays," says Hardway leader and guitarist Robert Owens. "People, they come from their little church thing, they come to Ford's and they get their little dance on, then they go home, not too late, you know?" They're definitely getting their little dance on, and in between their little dances, folks are skipping next door to the P, S & G Soul & Seafood Hut (4595 Livingston Rd.; 301/283-0200) to order perhaps the best chicken wings I've ever tasted (the fried fish -- croaker, bones in -- was almost as praise-worthy).

Dorsey Ford opened his Wonderbar in 1942, back in the days of legal slot machines. "I remember going in there to see him and playing those machines," says his daughter Iris, who has run the club with her partner Jim Goolsby since her father passed on in 1993. "People would say `Hey little girl, take some coins.' I'd get a thrill hearing those machines chime. But that all ended in the late '60s."

"We keep to the older set. There's no conflicts, nobody trying to prove themselves. It's family here." One way she found to encourage an older crowd was to never change the jukebox. "If you keep the old blues on there, younger kids aren't interested." She also maintains a strict 25-to-enter policy.

Hardway is the only live music Ford's books. When they're not playing, it's a DJ or the jukebox. "Everybody dances to the jukebox, too," Iris says. "People just want to dance."

Owens agrees: "I think a lot of the older people -- you know, not kids -- just want to rekindle that juke joint feeling. They remember how much fun they used to have, and they want to do what they used to do: eat fried chicken, listen to the blues and do their little dancing at the juke joint."

Just up the road from Ford's is Lamont's Night Club & Picnic Grounds, run by Lamont Savoy since 1990. Open Thursday through Sunday, Lamont's is a curious hybrid (check the name) that's explained by its past. "It was called the Pomonkey Ball Diamond," says Savoy. "There's a big field out back and the grounds were purchased by a group of umpires who wanted a place to go and just hang out. They built a little food and soda vending stand here and then added onto it seven times, making this building bigger and bigger. I've put on two rooms since I've been here!"

The grounds are a popular picnic spot on weekends, and Lamont hosts gatherings of car and motorcycle buffs on the property ("I'm president of the Southern Maryland Auto Association and business manager of the East Coast Motorcycle Club, so we get people from all over," he says), but when the sun goes down, it's the music inside that rules (that and the food: Lamont's kitchen whips up some tremendous fried chicken as well, not to mention pigs' feet and pork chops).

The music includes the Hardway Connection a couple of times a month, and other Washington-area performers such as Bobby Parker, Chuck Brown and Nap Turner. "Since I've owned the club, I've had so many performers down here that I've dreamed of meeting," says Savoy, who used to own two record stores and was also a professional DJ. "Tyrone Davis, Percy Sledge, Clarence Carter, Gene Chandler. I have the Orioles quite often. I love having that kind of music in here." He says he's building an outdoor stage so that by next summer he can put on festivals and attract bigger names. (Starting at 4 p.m. this Saturday, Savoy is throwing a Lamont's Appreciation Day for his patrons. There'll be live music until late into the night.)

Savoy faces stiff competition in the outdoor festival market from Wilmer's Park (15710 Brandywine Rd., Brandywine; 301/888-1600), a long-established concert and festival site that's about 20 miles northeast of Lamont's. In recent years, the 80-acre park has become a haven for jam bands who play out their neo-hippie notions by joining in daylong concerts under the open sky. But Wilmer's Park didn't start that way.

Black restaurateur Arthur Wilmer bought the land in 1947 as a personal hunting retreat. In 1952 he built a bandstand and a small motel and restaurant on the site and began bringing in such well-known names as Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Supremes, Ray Charles and James Brown. But as legal segregation came to a close, other venues opened their doors to black entertainers and audiences, making it harder for Wilmer to lure them to his somewhat distant outdoor spot. To make ends meet, Wilmer began booking white acts, and they remain the bulk of the musical offerings.

Arthur Wilmer died in February of this year, and the park that carries his name is in the hands of his heirs. "I'd like this to go on in my dad's name," says daughter Leslie Parks. "Right now we're just dealing on a day-to-day basis. We need to make a lot of repairs and improvements to the property, but I'm hoping we can keep it in the family." She adds, a little ominously, "If you know how to pray, pray for Wilmer's Park."

The several hundred youngsters (late teens to mid-twenties) who are at Wilmer's Park the night I visit are bouncing up and down to local bands playing on two stages, bands like Sev, Jepetto, Modern Yesterday and Boogiehawg. There's the small stage, which is the original Wilmer's Park stage and is loaded with history, and a much larger stage, about 200 yards down a sloping hill, that provides a nice, natural amphitheater setting. The music is that 1999 blend of punk, metal, hip-hop, funk and noise that is somehow coming to musically define youth at the turn of this millennium.

The kids are twirling glowing light sticks. They're showing off new piercings. They're gearing up for the rave that's planned for after the live bands. I can't stay.

Gotta head on up Branch Avenue, up to Clinton. In a little block of shops is the Clinton Inn (9806 Old Branch Ave.; 301/868-2363) where the ubiquitous Hardway Connection plays every Friday night. Inside, the lights are low, and the dance floor is small, but if you really want to get up and shake it, you can make room.

Driving up Old Branch Avenue, I'm looking for Sam's Crab House (301/868-4373). The address is 7911 Lewis Spring Ave., but it's not on my map. I call and am told to look for the sign. About a half-hour later I find the sign just south of Coventry Road, a small piece of cardboard with "Steamed or Live Crabs at Sam's Crab House" written on it in magic marker. Following the sign, I head down what's basically an alley, and after the Camp Springs Radiator Service, I find Sam's in the middle of a big parking lot.

Walking into Sam's, you're hit by a smell, a smell like that of the old 9:30 club. The smell of a club past its prime, but folks still swear by the crabs here, and by owner Sam Habib's secret seasoning that he throws in while steaming the critters.

Habib has been selling crabs from this site for 37 years, first from a carry-out stand, then, after he and his friends put in a few months of construction labor, from a restaurant starting in 1966. "My wife Patricia and I, we'd be sitting there with our friends back then," says Habib, "playing a little poker or pinochle, waiting for the customers. Three customers come in. Six customers. Fifteen customers. It just kept growing by word of mouth." (I want to suggest that better signage might have helped, but that advice seems 37 years too late.)

Habib started booking live music into his restaurant in 1968. One of the first acts he hired was a young guitarist named Danny Gatton. "Danny, he was my house band. I hired him for weekends. First I had an accordion player, then I hired a terrific singer named Smokey Mac, then I hired Danny. But you know what? I had to fire him three weeks later."

Apparently, so many broke musicians came to watch the teenage guitar phenom and not to drink that the waitresses weren't making any money. "He came back to play though, many times," says Habib.

When I visit one Sunday, its Honky Tonk Confidential that's onstage, playing old country hits and their own songs that sound like old country hits. They're standing in front of a glittery curtain that is almost amusingly kitschy, but with so few people in the club, it looks a little shabby.

A few older couples sway none too elegantly around the floor. Folks sitting at the bar care more about the TV screens. A couple of pool tables round out the scene. But somehow, it feels comfortable. These are real people, spending their hard-earned money just how they want: on some steamed shrimp and some cold beer. And as I work on another beer myself, I'm just glad Sam's is still here for me to find it.

It won't be here forever, though. Sam is 66 and admits to contemplating the day when he says goodbye to the bar and restaurant business. He knows Southern Maryland is changing, and he's not sure he wants to keep up.

Housing developments are tearing up cornfields. Strip malls are replacing the old roadhouses along Route 5 and Route 301. But people still find places to go out with friends and lovers to "do their little dance" and share a beer. Here's a salute and a prayer to those places in Southern Maryland that let me discover them. I promise I'll be back.