The Cox Family
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30 The Cox Family —Susan Roach The Cox Family lives in Cotton Valley, Louisiana, some thirty-five miles from Shreveport. Their roots remain deep in old-time, bluegrass, and gospel music that they picked up from local musicians, heard on phonograph records and radio stations, and learned at church. They are modern exponents of the same “old-time music” tradition carried on decades before by the Taylor-Griggs Melody Makers, and full participants in a vital subculture that sustains itself via informal gatherings of family and friends, rural (particularly Pentecostal and Baptist) church settings, and fiddling contests. A tradition grounded in nostalgia, this country music subculture continues to thrive quite apart from the mainstream commercial country industry. One notable exception is the mainstream attention brought by the sensational success of O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2000. The Cox Family remains close to the roots music of northeastern Louisiana and Shreveport despite the blossoming of their fame through this film and their interactions with bluegrass star Alison Krauss. Roach sketches their history as a family of musicians and their challenges in pursuing a professional life while staying close to home. Carrying on a long family musical tradition, the Cox Family, from Cotton Valley, Louisiana, exemplifies the best of both the preservation and promotion of folk music. Echoing the old-time country sounds typical of the north Louisiana hill country, they draw on, as Nashville writer Michael McCall says, “the bedrock of American music, combining traditional country, Southern gospel, rural blues, and old-styled pop into a sweetly casual, homespun sound The Cox Family 31 that is as refreshing as a soft summer breeze across a back porch.”1 The family band includes father Willard Cox on fiddle and vocals; son Sidney on banjo, Dobro, and vocals; and daughters Evelyn on vocals and guitar and Suzanne on vocals and mandolin. Another daughter Lynn, who initially played bass with the band and then stopped for a period, again plays bass and sings. While their traditional musical background and beautiful family harmony have much in common with many of this region’s musicians, their accomplishments and awards, including Grammy award–winning recordings, songwriting, and film, go far beyond the norm. Family Background Continuing to live in their hometown of Cotton Valley, the Cox Family has a background in music characteristic of many of the traditional old-time country families of north Louisiana, in that they learned their music “by ear.” The family patriarch and spokesman, Willard, who started the family band, describes his style as “country, bluegrass, and gospel; we mixed it up.”2 Born June 9, 1937, Willard Cox grew up in rural Webster Parish, where traditional music was a part of family life. His grandfather on the Etheridge side and his uncle played country fiddle, which he says made him want to play. In addition , his mother sang, and as Willard recalls: “I first learned to sing in church when I was a small boy. It just came naturally to me to learn. We sang the old One Hundred songs at the First Baptist Church.”3 His country music was inspired by other musicians in the community as well as the radio broadcasts from both the Grand Old Opry and the Louisiana Hayride; by the time he was eleven in 1948, the Hayride had begun, providing him with many inspirations: I listened to KWKH every afternoon, especially to Harmie Smith’s program, where he played the guitar and sang, and on Saturday nights, the Louisiana Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry. I was especially inspired by Johnny and Jack, the Tennessee Mountain Boys, Red Sovine, Wilburn Brothers, Mac Wiseman, Johnny Horton, and Jimmie Davis. It was all country. Every once in a while Jimmy Martin, Flatt and Scruggs would come down and do bluegrass.4 The Hayride first aired about the same time as Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, and his band, with Flatt and Scruggs, hit its stride. While the Cox Susan Roach 32 Family often is categorized as bluegrass by the music world, they ­actually think of themselves more as old-time country. The family’s emphasis on harmony singing, with female voices dominating the sound, and the subject matter of their work does set them apart from the hard-driving, fast-paced instrumentation and aggressive singing style of typical bluegrass. Also their instrumentation , particularly Willard’s fiddling, points more toward country, which is not surprising, given how he learned the fiddle. Willard describes how he obtained his...


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