Chatting with Jeff Cook

Jeff, for web 1

Amid 40th anniversary Alabama reunion tour, band’s famed guitar player sits down with Lookout Alabama

BY RANDY GRIDER

We can talk or we can fish.” That was Jeff Cook’s simple response when I requested a sit-down interview with him a couple days after Christmas, while visiting briefly at his 15,000-square-foot castle atop Lookout Mountain.

Knowing the Country Music Hall of Fame member and guitarist for the supergroup Alabama is an avid fisherman – and the official state fishing ambassador – I had thrown out the idea of interviewing him while fishing. Less than two months later, we met again in the kitchen of the impressive castle officially christened Excalibur (See our Cook Castle feature here). Nowadays Cook and wife Lisa spend most of their time at their home on Lake Guntersville, about 40 miles from Fort Payne, where – when he’s not playing or producing music – he, you guessed it, enjoys one of the Southeast’s most popular fishing spots.

During this visit Lisa teasingly explains Cook’s obsession with fishing and his previous comment regarding a fishing trip/interview. “It’s no fun to fish with Jeff,” Lisa says, laughing. “You can’t talk. You can’t play the radio … just fish.”[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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Cook’s wry wit is sometimes hidden in his delivery, only given away by a quick grin that lets you know he is pulling your leg. Sometimes he lets you dangle for a few moments for his own pleasure.

As the photographer we hired for the day passes by a doorway to the kitchen where Cook and I are sitting at the island bar, Cook looks up and quickly says, “No photographs.”

jeffcook“Sir?” asks the photographer.

“Didn’t anyone tell you? You can’t take pictures in here.” Cook answers.

With a puzzled and slightly panicked look flashing across his face, the photographer turns to me for help. Then, after a couple of seconds, a boyish grin breaks Cook’s stern countenance. In Southern colloquium, he is “messin’ with us.” It’s a down-home charm that makes you feel like you are being allowed in on an inside joke.

On this brisk early February day, Cook has just returned from California and Alabama’s first 2013 outing, a prelude to a multi-date Back to the Bowery tour to celebrate the music group’s 40th anniversary. The band (then called Wildcountry) started playing in 1973 at the Bowery, a popular Myrtle Beach, S.C., establishment. The band played there for years while building a faithful following before they finally skyrocketed to fame in early ’80s.

To put Alabama in its proper place amongst music royalty, one has to consider its more than two decades of stratospheric popularity, when the band rewrote the record books. Alabama’s resume includes: 43 No. 1 hits, eight Entertainer of the Year honors, two Grammys, two People’s Choice awards, Country Group of the Decade (1980s), Country Group of the Century and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. With more than 73 million records sold, Alabama has eclipsed the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Pink Floyd and The Who.

Cook admits he is tired from the West Coast trip – he also managed a quick fishing excursion to Mexico on the weeklong-plus jaunt – but was elated to see loyal Alabama fans. The band had played together only a handful of times since retiring in 2003. (In addition to a cameo on Brad Paisley’s “Old Alabama” tribute to the band, Alabama played two charity fundraisers for tornado relief following the April 27, 2011, tornadoes that devastated many communities in their home state.)

"“It’s always great to see the fans,” Cook says. “It’s important to not only see our old fans, but also the new ones. Our music is being enjoyed by a new generation of fans that have discovered it.”"

While Cook wasn’t playing regularly with Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry, Alabama’s other founding members, until recently, he never stepped away from music. In fact, as Alabama was completing its 2003- 04 farewell tour, Jeff was already forming another group – the Allstar Goodtime Band that boasts nine members and includes a horn section. AG B plays an eclectic range of music that Cook calls “funtry” or “country soul and rock and roll.”

“AGB is a collection of great guys who are all very talented musicians in their own right,” Cook says. “I enjoy playing with them because we really have a lot of fun.”

Among Cook’s other hobbies are cooking (his castle includes a Japanese kitchen) and dabbling with electronic projects. Electronics have been a lifelong passion of Cook’s. He earned a degree in the field from Gadsden State Community College after graduating from Fort Payne High School. He also worked at local radio stations as a disc jockey before making it big and has kept his hands in both electronics and radio over the years. Currently, he and Lisa do a weekly classic country radio show on WTW X-FM in Guntersville. Cook stays in touch with hometown fans through Fan Appreciation Weekend each June in Fort Payne and by hosting Jeff Cook Day, a free August event in Guntersville where he also donates funds to local charities. Despite his celebrity status, Cook tries to be like everyone else. “I’m not afraid of the people,” Cook says. “Lisa and I go out to eat and go to Walmart like everyone else.”

Still, the demands of being a country legend are bound to wear on anyone. Cook, who after a few years of living “a normal life” finds himself back on the road at 63, keeps his perspective on the matter light and jovial – despite the planes, hotels and media attention. “If it weren’t for stress, I wouldn’t have any energy at all,” he jokes.

It’s with Lisa, his wife of 18 years, that he seems to find the greatest peace and balance. Their quick glances and affectionate teasing light up Cook’s face.

And when we find ourselves in a sitting room where Lisa has joined us, the topic again turns to fishing. Cook, who has picked up one of his favorite guitars, can’t help but tell one last fishing tale – how his favorite hobby brought him and Lisa together. He explains he was on his way from the Birmingham airport to Mexico to do a little fishing. Lisa, then an employee of Delta Airlines, was working in the Crown Room when she started chatting him up – “playing Debbie Delta,” Cook says.

When he mentioned fishing, Lisa told him she grew up catfishing and running trout lines with her dad. “Well, she used that line on me about her fishing background and I guess it worked,” Cook says. “That was 18 years ago and we haven’t done any of those things together.”

Lisa playfully protests and asks Cook where is the big, mounted fish she insists she caught.

Acting as if he doesn’t hear her, Cook goes back to strumming on his guitar, unable to hide the big grin on his face.

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