If a music fan didn't know any better, it might have been difficult to pick out the Country Music Hall of Fame member who was occupying a slot on stage during a recent show at the Limelight in Nashville.
Jeff Cook, the guitarist for the now-retired arena kings Alabama, was positioned in the center of the Allstar Goodtime Band's front line of musicians. He took on the spokesman role -- cracking jokes, singing some lead vocals, playing a fair share of fiddle and guitar solos -- but the chatter was actually kept to a minimum, and the spotlight shifted repeatedly to the other eight players as the AGB passed around lead vocal and instrumental duties.
Cook was certainly the main attraction for the bulk of the crowd, but he was surprisingly deferential in presenting his new musical concern.
"I don't try to hog the spotlight," he says in a backroom office at his publicist's Music Row office. "I have too [many talented guys] on stage to try to do that. I respect all those guys because of their musicianship and ability to do what they do, and I don't think it should be hidden. I think it should be exploited, for lack of a better word."
The word that probably best describes Cook's ensemble is eclectic. At the Nashville club, the set list ranged from the Commodores' funk classic "Brick House" to Merle Haggard's traditional country standard "Workin' Man Blues." In addition, they churned out the Eagles' country-rock "Seven Bridges Road," Lynyrd Skynyrd's album-rock anthem "Sweet Home Alabama," Jerry Lee Lewis' '50s effort "Great Balls of Fire," the early-Beatles hit "I Feel Fine," the Floyd Cramer instrumental "Last Date" and some new material, including the title track to the AGB's new album, Ashes Won't Burn.
With the upbeat set list and three-piece horn section, Cook could have easily called his group JC & the Sunshine Band.
"My goal putting this band together was to have the ability to play the music that targets places like casino show rooms, fairs, festivals, that sort of thing," Cook notes. "I think that's probably what's happened. If we go to play an R&B song, it sounds like R&B. If we go to play country, it sounds country, and everybody's got enough knowledge of the differences to make it sound that way."
It is, in some ways, a return to Cook's pre-fame past. He was a late-night disc jockey at Fort Payne, Ala., radio station WFPA for eight years during the '60s when radio stations -- particularly small-town outlets -- played music from a wide variety of formats. Even Alabama, prior to its multi-platinum era, made its mark playing music at the Bowery in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where the band routinely vacillated between songs of different genres: Muscle Shoals soul classics, Creedence Clearwater Revival rock and Waylon Jennings country.
That kind of variety had vanished greatly from Cook's musical life during the 25-year stretch from Alabama's first hit, "My Home's In Alabama," until it completed its Farewell Tour in October 2004. The group had a definable sound, and as the hits piled up, they found themselves locked into a tightly controlled set list. It worked -- the Fort Payne foursome threw some very successful sonic parties -- but it lost its freshness for the guys who performed those songs every night.
"Lookin' back on it, what comes to mind is doing the same 25 songs every time we did a concert," Cook says. "We might change one or two but not enough difference to be varied."
Cook and the AGB still play a handful of Alabama songs -- particularly "Mountain Music," "Dixieland Delight" and "Tennessee River" -- in their wide-ranging concerts. And the new band has enough vocal chops to make the harmonies on those numbers sound almost as if Cook, Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry had regrouped onstage.
Don't look for that to happen any time soon, though. It's been nearly five years since they last toured together, and the band members have moved on. Owen released his first solo album in November, Cook has his group and Gentry is producing Emerson Drive. Even if those three wanted to piece the old act back together, their relationship with drummer Mark Herndon is not particularly good. The band filed a $200,000 lawsuit against him last May, one month before the band had four statues erected in its honor on a corner in Fort Payne. The band claimed Herndon was overpaid for merchandise sales, and it's clear he's now an outsider. Herndon, Cook says, no longer shows up for meetings when they're called.
"There's still business connections that we have to address," Cook observes.
The rift with Herndon wasn't always there. As recently as 2005, the four all gathered at a restaurant for an informal business meeting at the behest of Owen.
"He said, 'We got somethin' we need to talk about,'" Cook recalls. "So he calls Teddy and Mark, and we all meet over at Cracker Barrel, and nobody's brought up any topics or anything other than the food. And somebody asked him, 'What do we need to talk about?' 'Well, nothin' really. I just wanted to see what it would be like to have breakfast with three more Hall of Fame members.'"
That's how Owen told the other three that Alabama was to be inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
"I thought that was pretty cool," Cook says.
It was a confusingly packed period for Cook. Shortly after their breakfast, he underwent gastric bypass surgery four days before his birthday in August 2005. The same day Alabama's Hall of Fame entry was announced publicly, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Alabama came out of retirement to do a fundraising concert for hurricane victims, though Cook had to quit before the show was completed. The surgery typically requires three to five weeks for recovery, and playing just 16 days after the operation took a physical toll he hadn't expected.
Nonetheless, the operation was a major success. The surgery -- which shrinks the size of the stomach, making the patient feel full sooner -- took 100 pounds off his frame and provided immediate relief to his knees. Cook looks much healthier these days. His facial features are more chiseled, and he moves more comfortably than he had in the past.
"I think it might have actually saved my life," Cook notes of the bypass. "I was startin' to have high blood pressure and a lot of weight on knees and joints and so forth and just felt like I had to do it."
It's not the first surgery that's had a major impact on Cook's life. In 1976, before the world at large had heard of Alabama, his finger was severely injured when a single-serving wine bottle broke in his left hand and severed a nerve and tendon in one finger. The finger remains permanently bent, though Cook's impatience about playing made its position more jagged than was initially necessary.
A doctor sewed it back together the night of the accident, and it had just a slight bend the following morning. But Cook started doing shows again before it was fully healed and suffered the consequences.
"It was just gonna be barely noticeable, just a small bend in it," he says. "But it takes three months for nerves and tendons to heal, and I went back trying to play after six weeks and did this little guitar riff and stretched the string, and when I did, I popped the tendon loose. So I took a guitar, went back to the doctor's office, held the guitar and made like an F chord and held that finger where it needed to be, and they slid a piece of cardboard down between the two fingers and drew the angle of where that finger had to be to make that chord. When I woke up, that's the way it was."
It was a lot of effort for a club-level musician to make, and it says much about what motivates Cook.
"I was probably put here to play guitar," he shrugs.
There's a tradeoff between the arenas he played with Alabama and the clubs and casinos he's now working with the Allstar Goodtime Band. As long as he's playing with a capable bunch of musicians, the venue doesn't really matter.