If you’re gonna play in Texas, you gotta had a fiddle in the band. But Heaven requires fiddle players too apparently, and Jeff Cook’s been called home.
The country music community is mourning the loss of a titan, and a terribly influential member of its community as it has been confirmed that Jeff Cook, an original founding member of famed Country Music Hall of Fame band Alabama, has died at the age of 73. The guitarist, fiddler, and singer died Monday, November 7th at his home in Destin, Florida, with his family and close friends by his side.
What country music sounds like would be radically different if it wasn’t for the formidable influence Alabama brought to the genre, especially in the early 80s when they landed a string of monster hits such as “Tennessee River,” “Mountain Music,” and so many more.
Alabama brought a Southern rock attitude to country, but unlike many of their Southern rock contemporaries, they kept it more country than rock. The work of Jeff Cook was seminal to that sound, and it’s success. It was Cook’s guitar work that brought that more sweaty and aggressive attitude to country music regularly resigned to the rock world. But when he picked up the fiddle, he grounded the music right back in the country roots.
Alabama became one of the biggest bands in country music in the 80s, and one of the biggest in history. But it didn’t happen overnight. Jeffrey Alan Cook was born in Fort Payne, Alabama on August 27th, 1949, and began playing music when he was 13. Radio was Cook’s first passion, securing his own broadcast license at the age of 14, and working at a local Fort Payne radio station. After graduating high school, he received a degree in Electronic Technology at a local community college.
But Jeff Cook’s destiny was not to be behind the radio, but on it. Forming Alabama with his cousins Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry, they first called themselves Wild Country, which reflected their Southern rock roots to go along with their country influences. But it took a while for the sound of Alabama to catch on. The band started playing all summer at a bar called The Bowery in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and six years later, they were still slogging it out on the bar and honky tonk circuit in the South, looking for a big break.
The band played some 300 shows a year, signed to the small GRT Records, released their debut album Wild Country in 1976, a handful of radio singles promoted and funded all by themselves, and all to little or no success. Finally when the song “My Home’s in Alabama” started to find some traction and ended up at #17 on the country charts, they were invited to Nashville and the Country Radio Seminar, where they made a big impression. Soon they were signed to RCA Records, and it was off to the races.
30 of the bands next 32 singles all landed at #1, stretching from early 1980 into 1991, with the band continuing to mint #1s and Top 10s into the late 90s. Alabama became one of the most successful acts in country music history, and the most successful band from a commercial standpoint. Jeff Cook was a significant part of that, playing the signature guitar licks that cemented songs as radio hits. One of the band’s signature songs, “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” would have never come about if Alabama didn’t have a fiddle player right there on the front line to play the role so perfectly.
Versatile as a musician, Jeff Cook could also play mandolin, banjo, keys, bass, and other instruments. He is given credit for being the first to introduce the double neck guitar in country. But in 2018, Cook was forced to leave Alabama due to Parkinson’s Disease. First diagnosed in 2012, Jeff Cook fought as long as he could to remain functional in Alabama, then gave his blessing for the band to continue without him. His work had been done though. 43 #1 hits and over 80 million albums sold all featuring Jeff Cook of guitar and fiddle, the legacy of Alabama was secured in history.
Jeff Cook also owned a studio, aka “Cook Castle” where he combined his passion for electronics and music together once again. He was also an avid angler, being named the official “Fishing Ambassador” for the state of Alabama by five consecutive governors.
Now Jeff Cook gets to sit beside that great placid lake in the sky, throwing a line out, or sawing on the fiddle whenever he feels, free from his early burdens. He’s survived in this life by his wife of 27 years, Lisa Cook, and their puppies, Blazer and Blakely.
Some believe Alabama is next to Heaven, and now that’s where Jeff Cook will be forever as all country fans enjoy the little bit of Alabama Jeff Cook and his cousins brought alive for people around the world through their music.