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Jack Cooke sits on top of the world

By John Lupton, March 2007

The catalogs of the major bluegrass-oriented labels are chock-full these days of solo releases by the various band members and sidemen who make up the fluid and ever-changing landscape of modern bluegrass. For a guy like Jack Cooke with a half-century resume of playing with two of the most legendary and iconic bands, it's more than a little surprising that the late-February release of "Sittin' On Top Of The World" on Pinecastle marks his debut as a solo artist.

Now 70, Cooke's 37-year tenure as bass player for Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys certainly ranks among the longest in the history of the music, and while the idea of a solo album had been on his mind for years, it took some prodding from songwriter and producer Jim Lauderdale to finally make it happen.

"Jim...has been after me a long time to do this, and I've just kept putting him off. He's been after me eight or nine years, something like that. He said he'd like to produce it, and I said, 'Well, let me think it over,' and I just kept putting him off."

"Finally...a year and a half ago, Jim went ahead and got the studio all lined up, and all the musicians, and all the hotels and motel rooms. He called me and said, 'Jack, you've put me off long enough, we're gonna do it this time, and I've got everything in line.' I said, "Looks like I'm gonna have to go along this time,' and he said, 'Yeah.' So I said, 'Give me about a week, and let me think of some songs that I like to sing, that I've been singing a long time."

While he appears on most of the more than 100 albums recorded by Ralph Stanley since the early 1970s, Cooke says the desire to have a more personal statement as part of his own legacy also factored into the decision. "I got to thinking, well, everyone else has done some songs on record, and I got to thinking it over. I always wanted to do one (album) to leave something behind when I leave, or something happens to me - disabled or something like that. I wanted to leave something for people to remember me by."

As Cooke says - and the title of the album suggests - most of the songs are personal favorites that Cooke has sung over the years. "Years ago, back in the '50s, I was singing that 'Long Black Veil,' 'Walkin' the Dog' and that other one, 'Dark Hollow.' I was singing them ones on Bill Monroe's show because I was with Bill back in the '50s - about '56 or '57, I started with Bill, and I worked with Bill until about 1960. I was singing them songs back then, you know. 'Gotta Travel On'...I played guitar with Bill on that. Monroe had that out about '58, somewhere along in there...so I like that song. I like a lot of 'lonesome' songs...'Long Black Veil,' 'North to Alaska,' stuff like that."

One of the standout tracks, though, is a new, original tune by Lauderdale, "That's How The Cookie Crumbles," which highlights the outstanding backup cast helping Cooke out. "No, (Jim) wrote that just for me. Del (McCoury) and the boys - I just had a good lineup of talent on that...Ralph, he's singing two songs on there with me. My brother and his wife, they sing in church - they're doing two songs, and I've got Dave Grisman on this doing the mandolin, and all of Del's band and about half of Ralph's band backing me up. We did some of it in Nashville, and some of it in Big Stone Gap, Va. Del and Jim did their part in Nashville, then we sent the master to California for Dave Grisman to do his part. It's been around, you know," he laughs.

Cooke has long been known for his on- and off-stage ebullience, and it shows as he talks about three tracks drawn from the work of the Louvin Brothers. "Aw man, they were the greatest. They were in Nashville when I was with Monroe down there, and I met 'em. Ira was singing that tenor, man, and Charlie together - you just can't beat that 'brother harmony', you know. They were on the Grand Ole Opry down there when I was with Monroe. Great singers. Ira Louvin was one of the best songwriters that has ever been. I really mean that. I'd say that Ira probably wrote 60 per cent of the songs the boys done. My brother and his wife are singing on that 'There's A Higher Power,' then Lauderdale did the 'Seven Year Blues.' 'Let's All Go Down ' To The River,' that was my brother and his wife, she's just singing harmony with him."

And, while the description of added material in recent years as "bonus cuts" is often stretching things a bit, "Let Me Rest At The End Of My Journey" and "I've Always Been A Rambler" are choice (and historic) singles from Cooke's days as leader of his own Virginia Mountain Boys in the early 1960s after leaving Monroe's Blue Grass Boys and prior to rejoining Ralph Stanley a decade later.

A native (and former mayor) of Norton, Va., Cooke grew up in the same southwest Virginia mountains as his longtime friend and boss, Ralph Stanley. Like many of his contemporaries, his career in music began with family life.

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