Jeff Cook, a founder of the country band Alabama, dies at 73

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Jeff Cook, a founder of the country band Alabama, dies at 73
His group had 32 No. 1 country singles, and his guitar and fiddle playing helped extend its reach to a generation raised on rock ’n’ roll.

by Bill Friskics-Warren

NEW YORK, NY.- Jeff Cook, a founding member of Alabama, one of the most popular and influential bands in the history of country music, died Monday at his home in Destin, Florida. He was 73.

The group’s longtime manager, Tony Conway, said the cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease.

Alabama had 32 chart-topping country singles between 1980 and 1993, including encomiums to rural pride such as “Tennessee River” and “Mountain Music.” The group’s soul-inflected ballads “Take Me Down” and “Love in the First Degree” not only topped the country chart but crossed over to the pop Top 20 as well.

Cook and his cousin Teddy Gentry sang harmonies, while another cousin, Randy Owen, sang lead. All three men had a hand in writing the band’s material.

As the group’s lead guitarist and fiddle player, Cook brought a Southern-rock bravado to Alabama’s often middle-of-the-road approach, helping to extend the group’s reach beyond country’s core audience to a new generation of listeners raised largely on rock ’n’ roll.

Cook’s main influence as a guitarist was James Burton, who made muscular, twanging contributions to the bands of Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley and Gram Parsons. Cook’s sympathetic fills on the likes of “Feels So Right,” a No. 1 single and pop crossover hit from 1981, were inspired by late-’60s country-soul.

In contrast to country vocal ensembles such as the Statler Brothers and the Oak Ridge Boys, who were backed by professional musicians in the studio or on the road, Alabama was, like many rock groups, a band in its own right. Besides Cook, who occasionally played piano as well as fiddle and guitar, Gentry was the group’s bassist, while Owen played rhythm guitar and Mark Herndon played drums.

“Up to that point it had always been one or two — or, in some cases, maybe even four — people with a backup band, and that’s what we called a country act,” Cook said in a 2017 interview with the multimedia website FuseVisual. “We were the first ones who actually sang our own music and played our own stuff as a group.”

Some of Alabama’s critics said the band’s more commercial tendencies watered down its sound. But at its best — and in no small way because of Cook’s spirited playing — the group combined the swagger of outlaw country music with the lighter side of the Southern rock and soul of Memphis and Muscle Shoals.

Jeffrey Alan Cook, one of three children of James and Betty Cook, was born on Aug. 27, 1949, in Fort Payne, Alabama, a small town in the northeastern part of the state. His father owned an auto-parts store; his mother was a homemaker.

Cook took up guitar and piano at age 13. When he obtained his broadcast license the next year, he began hosting his own show on a local radio station. After graduating from high school, he earned a degree in electronic technology from Gadsden State Community College in Gadsden, Alabama.

While still in high school Cook formed a country-rock trio, Wildcountry, with his cousins Gentry and Owen. The group performed in and around Fort Payne until 1973, when the cousins decided to pursue music full time and started working in bars and roadhouses throughout the South. Four years later they changed their name to Alabama and added Herndon on drums.

Alabama recorded for small independent labels in the late 1970s. “My Home’s in Alabama,” an early signature song that begins with a brooding Lynyrd Skynyrd-inspired guitar run from Cook, became the group’s first Top 40 country hit. In 1980, after appearing at the annual Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, they signed with RCA Records, the label that would issue all 32 of their No. 1 singles.

In 2004, after almost 25 years with RCA, Alabama retired from touring and recording, although the members would later reunite for occasional appearances. The group was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.

Cook was also a member of the Musicians Hall of Fame (as part of Alabama) and the Fiddlers Hall of Fame. He recorded nine solo albums between 2005 and 2018; the last of them, “Why Not Me” (2018), was an unlikely but good-humored collaboration with William Shatner of “Star Trek” fame.

The songs “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink Alone” and “Too Old to Be Vegan” were typical of the project, exploiting the comedic and musical gifts of both men. “We were looking for something different — that people might find interesting,” Cook told Billboard in 2018. “It’s a unique project. I don’t know of anyone who has done anything quite like it.”

Cook is survived by his mother; his wife of 27 years, Lisa (Williams) Cook; a sister, Crystal Cook; and a brother, David.

Alabama’s run of more than two decades on the charts was, if not unprecedented, certainly a testament to the group’s singular perseverance and inspiration.

“We changed the collective minds of label heads in Nashville about the longevity of how a band can stay together in country music,” Cook said in the FuseVisual interview.

“They thought, back when we were trying to get signed in the late ’70s, that after a while the guys in a band would get tired of being together and playing together and traveling together, and then they’d just break up.

“But we, like I said, we changed the minds of a lot of the label heads in Nashville.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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