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Friday, December 4, 2009

RIP, Bluegrass Bassist Jack Cooke

Posted By on 12.04.09 at 01:21 PM

Jack Cooke
  • Jack Cooke
Working as a bluegrass bassist must be a pretty thankless task. Though you're providing the core pulse and harmonic framework for the music, you never get a turn in the solo spotlight—unlike the guitarist, fiddler, mandolinist, and banjoist (that is, everyone else in the band). Few bassists carried themselves with the grace of Jack Cooke, longtime sideman for Ralph Stanley. Cooke died Tuesday, at the age of 72, in a hospital in Norton, Virginia, after collapsing at home—he was born in Norton and lived there his whole life, even serving a term as mayor.

Cooke played briefly with the Stanley Brothers in 1955, but the following year he hooked up with Bill Monroe, playing bass and singing lead until 1960. In 1970, following the death of Carter Stanley, he re-upped with Ralph, becoming part of one of the greatest Clinch Mountain Boys lineups—his bandmates included Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs. That's Cooke laying down the deep, sturdy grooves and singing baritone and tenor harmonies on Can't You Hear the Mountains Calling, an excellent 1981 session by Stanley recently reissued on CD by Rounder Records—in fact you can hear Cooke on just about every Stanley record made over the past four decades. He remained with the band, a vet like its leader among a steady stream of up-and-comers, until health issues forced him to step down earlier this year.

In 2006 Cooke put his bass aside for his first and only solo album, Sittin' on Top of the World (Pinecastle), produced by Jim Lauderdale. The fact that the musicians supporting him included Stanley, Lauderdale, David Grisman, and the entire Del McCoury Band—McCoury once played banjo in Cooke's own band, which led Cooke to recommend him to Monroe—spoke volumes about the respect Cooke had earned from the bluegrass community. The record kind of makes me wonder why he didn't try to really make a go of it on his own—with its piercing intensity and heart-tugging vulnerability, his bristly, high-lonesome wail practically defined mountain soul.

Today's playlist:

Nana April Jun, The Ontology of Noise (Touch)
Katharina Weber, Woven Time (Intakt)
Taken by Trees, East of Eden (Rough Trade)
Murray Perahia, Bach Partitas 1, 5, and 6 (Sony Classical)
Kimi Djabaté, Karam (Cumbancha)

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