The Cockmans – truly the Sherrills Ford family that plays together
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Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013

The Cockmans – truly the Sherrills Ford family that plays together

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- BRUCE DUNBRIDGE
The Cockman Family Singers are, standing, from left, David, John Jr., Ben and Billy; seated, from left are Caroline Cockman Fisher and John Sr.
  • Learn more: Concert dates and CD-ordering information is available on the Cockman Family website: www.cockmanfamily.com. For booking information, contact John Cockman, Sr., at 828-478-4306 or 828-244-0198.

You might say it all began in 1986, when Sherrills Ford resident John Cockman Sr., 64, told his wife, Jane, that their four boys, ages 4 to 12, were old enough to “terrorize the community.”

“I went to the Lincoln County farm agent and asked what I could do on the family property that would keep the boys busy and productive,” John recalled. “The agent suggested that we grow peaches, so he gave us 400 peach saplings – whips, they are called – and the boys and I planted all 400 trees on Christmas Day.”

That was a start, but the boys and their dad soon graduated from “picking peaches to picking bluegrass.” Twenty five years later, the Cockman Family Bluegrass Gospel Group is the recipient of multiple awards, having been nominated as Bluegrass Artists of the Year and Bluegrass Band of the Year by the Country Gospel Music Association.

The Cockman Family was selected as one of “The 12 Most Creative Families in America” by American Greeting Cards and USA Today Weekend. The boys and their sister Caroline, under the direction of John, Sr., are kept busy performing live as well as on various PBS television programs, including “Song of the Mountains,” recently broadcast on area stations.

The family also starred in an hourlong holiday program, “A Cockman Family Christmas: Maker of the Stars,” featured in the national programming of American Public Television.

Originally, John’s rather modest goal was for the family to be able to play and sing together: “My daddy, a Methodist preacher for 65 years, played the guitar, and I learned to play when I was 12, so I wanted my boys to play as well.”

Each of the boys learned to play at least one stringed instrument, from banjo and mandolin to fiddle and bass fiddle, with some formal instruction but a great deal of self-practice. Caroline had already learned to play the piano from her mother, Jane.

They had been used to singing at the family’s church, Apostolic Tabernacle, in Newton. After competing in and doing quite well in local bluegrass music competitions, their “unique style of vocal harmonizing,” as it is described on the family website, together with the boys’ exceptional musical prowess, propelled the family to a career that has brought them recognition and accolades.

They have recorded numerous CDs which, though done in professional studios, feature musical accompaniment exclusively by family members. “We want our listeners to hear the music as it would be played live on stage at one of our concerts, not by professional studio musicians,” John says.

Surprisingly, given their musical talents, the boys do not read music. “They don’t want to mess with learning to read music,” said their mom, Jane, “so they mostly just play by ear. Caroline will teach them the chords, but then they are pretty much on their own.” As John Jr. explained, “We really feed off each other while playing our respective instruments.”

Their focus on gospel music is a reflection of the family’s strong connection to the church. “Gospel music offers something deeper than just music,” said John Sr. “The blessings we receive sustain us in our musical career, which is more of a ministry. When you do gospel music, there’s more to hold you together than just music.”

In addition to John Sr., recently retired from teaching furniture and cabinet making at Maiden High School, the family lineup includes Caroline, 41, lead singer and songwriter, whom her father refers to as “the little rose among the thorns.” Voted Female Vocalist of the Year and Songwriter of the Year by Powergrass Internet Radio, she has written more than 50 songs, by her own estimate, many of which have been recorded by the family. She is a stay-at-home mom to her children, Samuel and Lydia Jane.

John Jr., 39, sings bass and plays the fiddle. He took up that instrument as a young boy as soon as his mom came home from her first fiddle lesson. Affectionately known as “Dr. John,” he is a physics professor and director of laboratories at Appalachian State University.

He is the only member of the family who does not live on the family acreage in Sherrills Ford. He and his wife, Jennifer, are the parents of Arwen and Lorien, who have formed their own musical duo, recording and yodeling under the name The Butterpats.

“They fell in love with Western music when they were just 4 and 5 years old,” said their dad. “They heard ‘Riders in the Sky’ at Tweetsie Railroad and they wanted to learn to yodel.” Why call themselves The Butterpats? “They love butter,” their mom explains.

Billy, 36, lead singer, plays the banjo and the guitar. A licensed contractor, he has degrees in furniture design and manufacturing. He teaches banjo as well to aspiring young students, but finds time to compete in banjo competitions, having won the national champion this year. Billy and his wife, Emma, have two children, Jeremiah and Emma.

David, 34, is the bass fiddler and sings baritone, as well as assisting his dad with the emcee work. “Besides providing humor for the group,” Billy said, “David has a smile that always seems to light up the stage.” He and wife Jessie have two sons, Noah and Joseph, and a daughter, Sophia Bell. Carrying on another family tradition, he also has degrees in furniture manufacturing and design.

The youngest member of the family at 32, Ben is also the tallest, 6-foot-7. He sings lead and baritone and is an award-winning mandolin and guitar player. A professional music teacher working from his home studio, he teaches each of the grandkids in the family, as well. He has been described as “a multi-talented musician who can play any instrument he puts his hands on.” Besides mandolin and guitar, he also teaches fiddle, banjo, and resophonic guitar. His wife, Melissa, is a professional photographer; they recently celebrated the birth of their first child, Madeline.

Of the 10 grandkids in the family, eight regularly sing with the group, performing cameos mostly, and playing various instruments. Known affectionately as “the little cousins,” they love to be together, says grandfather John Sr.

Finding the time to perform at as many as 100 or more concerts a year can present a challenge for the extended families, but as John Jr., said, “The Lord gave us everything we need to be doing what we do as a musical family.” Billy added, “None of us feel that this happened by chance. It’s a musical ministry, and as long as there are folks out there that need to hear the message in our music, we’re going to keep playing it.”

Bruce Dunbridge is a freelance writer for Lake Norman News. Have a story idea for Bruce? Contact him at brucedunbridge@yahoo.com.

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