little disclaimer here: this is the first time I’ve interviewed someone, so be a little forgiving of my questions.
Hey guys, today I’m excited to be interviewing Dr. John Cockman! For those unfamiliar with you, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi Gunnar, thanks for requesting the interview. I started fiddling at the age of thirteen (32 years ago), in order to compete at local Fiddlers’ Conventions with my Dad and three brothers. Our group is called “The Cockman Family.” Real original, right? Later our older sister joined us on vocals and we have been making bluegrass-gospel music together ever since. Now that we are older, our children (14 cousins in all) have started forming their own bands, and we still all get together to perform locally. For my day job, I teach Physics at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, a State institution with about 20,000 students. This is my 20th year at the University. My father and mother were both teachers, so it is kind of in my blood! About ten years ago I started a YouTube channel dedicated to fiddle instruction, which has more than 15,000 subscribers. At about the same time, I started free weekly “Fiddle Camp” group lessons at my home. Instruction included guitar, dance, and three levels of fiddling. Since we live in and adjacent to some economically-challenged mountain counties, I wanted to help sustain the regional folk traditions of fiddling and dancing by teaching free lessons to local children. It is also my goal to share God’s love and the message of Christ at every meeting. These group sessions grew until about 70 area children were coming each week, at which time we decided to move to Blowing Rock Memorial Park, where the lessons continue every Tuesday evening during the summer months. At one point, one of my Fiddle Camp attendees donated a domain name, “BluegrassDaddy.com,” and encouraged me to create an online fiddle instruction website. I decided to offer affordable instruction, capped at less than $10 per month, for students who are unable to find free instruction in their area. This website is now the primary focus of my fiddle outreach. Through member subscriptions and donations, we have been able to provide more than 100 violins to area youth, along with strings, rosin, maintenance, and free instruction. On a personal level, my wife Jennifer and I have were married in 1996, and have four children together (two biological daughters, plus an adopted son and daughter). We have also been fostering for the last six years, and every child who stays here ends up playing a musical instrument!
Cool! So what made you want to pick up the fiddle specifically?
When my brothers and I started performing, we either saying a capella or we were accompanied by my Dad on guitar. We soon found out that in order to compete as a band in competitions, we needed at least three instruments to qualify. My Dad borrowed a guitar which I started to play, and he bought a Sears and Roebuck mandolin straight from the catalog which my brother Billy began to learn. Later, while performing at a church, we came across a used Kay bass fiddle which the church agreed to sell to us. I started playing the bass but found it to be rather uninteresting. Soon after, we decided to add fiddle and banjo. Billy handed his mandolin down to our youngest brother Ben and took up the banjo, which we had also borrowed from a friend. My mother enrolled herself in violin lessons at a music store in Hickory, NC, which also provided us with a rental fiddle. She was going to learn to play, then teach my 2nd brother David what she learned. However, when she came home with that rental fiddle, I fell in love with it. I handed the bass down to David and took up the fiddle instead. Mama quit her lessons and we borrowed a fiddle from a friend at church. I began learning the fiddle and really enjoyed it, but had no teacher. At a local Fiddlers’ Convention, we met two musical brothers, Joel and Donnie Little. They agreed to begin teaching Billy and me banjo and fiddle. I took lessons from Joel for three years, until I graduated from High School.
Ok so can you quickly give an introduction to your siblings?
All of my siblings live near my parents on the family farm in Sherrills Ford, NC, along with their wonderful spouses and children. I am the only one who moved away, due to my work at Appalachian State. My older sister’s name is Caroline Fisher. She is our lead singer/songwriter. She plays piano in church. My 1st brother is Billy Cockman. He plays and teaches banjo and guitar, and is also our lead singer/songwriter. He is a first-place banjo champion at the South Carolina State Championship in Hartsville, the North Carolina State Championship at Carolina in the Fall, and the National Championship in Winfield, KS. My 2nd brother is David Cockman. He plays and teaches bass and guitar. He has won multiple local and regional bass competitions. My 3rd brother is Ben Cockman. He plays and teaches guitar, mandolin, banjo, and fiddle. He is a first-place guitar champion at the South Carolina State Championship in Hartsville, the Merlefest Championship, the Wayne Henderson Championship, the West Virginia State Championship in Huntington, the New England Championship in Cornish, ME, and the National Championship in Winfield, KS. We are all very close, and bring our families together to jam and perform often.
Did you ever play in any other band besides the family band?
Yes, I have performed locally for the past fifteen years with a group called Amantha Mill, named after a mill in the Amantha community that was washed away in the 1940s flood. The band includes Judge Becca Eggers-Gryder as bassist, lead singer and songwriter, also William Helms on guitar and banjo, and national champion Tony Reese on Dobro. We perform mostly during the summertime, and have recorded several CDs together.
Cool! Speaking of CDs, what’s your favorite album you’ve played on?
I have been on some fun projects! However, all of my favorites involve my family, because those hold the most meaning for me. I still listen to a CD called “Whatever Happened to the Yodeling Cowgirls” by my daughters, who had a Western duo called The Butterpats. Foremost, I love remembering their little voices, but it also includes some great Western tunes and originals, and absolutely virtuoso yodeling. I think my favorite CD is the most recent Cockman Family CD, “Dedicated,” which isn’t very recent at all (maybe about 6 years old at the time of this interview). It is the one CD that reflects how my siblings and I sound, and I just love to listen to them. The band is tight, the musicianship is solid and it contains both old hymns and songs that we wrote.
Awesome! And where can we find those albums for sale or streaming?
Cool. And what’s your favorite 5 albums that you were not involved in?
That is a really good question! I have a lot of great albums that I love, it’s too impossible to give a Top 5. I’ll make an attempt to list the five bluegrass recordings that have probably gotten the most play by me, in no particular order: (Since the advent of Spotify I’m less likely to play an entire album by an artist, but I’ll try to pick the album(s) that contain the largest grouping of my favorites by the artists.) Crooked Still: Shaken by a Low Sound Tony Rice: Native American Aubrey Haney: A Man Must Carry On
Nickel Creek: Nickel Creek Balsam Range: Marching Home
Moving on from recordings, when did you realize you were a good teacher?
I have enjoyed teaching for as long as I can remember. When I learn something new, I automatically want to start teaching it to someone else. Teaching helps me to more fully understand what I am learning because it forces me to dig a little deeper before presenting it to my co-learners. I certainly don’t consider myself to be a master who is distributing knowledge. I have always been more of a quick learner who is trying to inspire others to learn as well. It is wonderful to have friends along for the journey, especially when I see them traveling farther than I ever could!
So your older daughters have both done some overseas missions work, have you also done missions overseas or just locally?
My oldest daughter, Arwen, volunteered for five weeks as a doctor’s assistant at Pioneer Christian Hospital near Impfondo, Congo. My second daughter, Lorien, volunteered for six weeks at the Missionary Children Home in Bangalore, India. However, my mission has always been on a local, personal level. Jennifer and I do a lot of work through our Fiddle Camp, fostering programs, Bible studies, homeschool support, and music ministry. However, we do have the opportunity to participate in overseas work from time to time, usually through preaching or music ministry.
One memorable trip was a two-week visit to the Sunchild Native Reserve near Rocky Mountain House, Alberta Canada. BluegrassDaddy.com member Rodger Rinker has long-established a church and Bible school on the reserve and invited us to stay in his home for two weeks. We helped with mission operations which include caring for dozens of local children and maintaining the church and Sunday School materials. Rodger has collected many beginner-model fiddles, and so we taught a Fiddle Camp at the mission.
Here’s a link to a more detailed report about this mission trip
We also did daily musical programs at the local k-12 Sunchild First Nation School. It was a wonderful trip because of the perspectives I gained and because of the friendships we formed. I would strongly recommend overseas missions at some level during a person’s lifetime.
That’s wonderful! Missions is something very dear to me for obvious reasons. So who are your personal fiddling heroes?
I have so many fiddle heroes! First off my teacher Joel Little who got me started on the right path, but then there are so many that I really look up to as musicians, even though I may not know a lot about them personally. There are a lot of really amazing fiddlers out there. When I think of my heroes though, I think about the ones that made me want to play. There are some that may be better at the technical aspects, but these are the fiddlers that inspired me to learn their tunes. Again, no particular order: Kenny Baker Bobby Hicks Johnny Gimble Charlie Daniels
And who are four fiddlers you think are underrated?
OK there are tons of underrated fiddlers out there, but here are four that are actually famous and underrated: Donnel Leahy, Sam Bush, Allison Krauss, and Eck Robertson. Donnel Leahy because he is in the shadow of his wife Natalie MacMaster although he’s a far better fiddler. Sam Bush because he is most noted as a mandolin player although he’s actually better at the fiddle. Alison Krauss because she is known as a singer but she is an incredible fiddler with a very distinctive style. Finally Eck Robertson, because he is mostly remembered for being rediscovered as an old man in the folk revival era, but as a young man he was probably the best old-time fiddler living. Please don’t ask me to list four fiddlers I think are overrated!
Ha why not? Lol.So what are you working on now, any new projects or more of the same awesomeness?
I’ve always been bad to start a project yet never finish it. I would like to expand BluegrassDaddy.com to include other instruments taught by me or my brothers, but that is very daunting because of the distance, training, and time involved. Going the other direction, I have also thought about creating a mirror site for BluegrassDaddy.com that contains gospel fiddle tunes only. My siblings and I recently committed to making two more CDs, one gospel and one instrumental. On a personal level, I have started two books that need to be finished. One is about some mathematics found in scripture and another is a daily devotional for scientists.
I’ve had the same problem…So how many instruments do you have, and what are they?
My first instrument was the harmonica, which I played in a little church band with my parents and sister. My Mom teaches piano out of her home, so I was compelled to learn to play from an early age. Before settling on the fiddle, I played bass and guitar in my family bluegrass band. I play the other bluegrass instruments as well, but my favorite by far is the fiddle! If I am in a jam that includes too many fiddlers, my second choice of instrument is the mandolin, followed by guitar or dobro.
How many fiddles do you have? And which is your favorite?
I have a house full of fiddles! My three daughters all play, plus we have become a revolving door for fiddles through our “Fiddle Camp” outreach. On a regular basis, local families are taking or returning fiddles as their children grow into the next size. My nicest fiddle is “Ava,” a 5-string built for me by Bob Kogut of Lenoir, NC. It is a wonderful instrument. I am currently stringing her with four octave strings instead of 4 regular strings with a viola C. However, my favorite fiddle to play is “Evangeline,” a French fiddle that was built in 1917. She is very lightweight and easy to play, with a bright tone that really stands out in a jam session.
Awesome. Is there any question I’ve missed that you want to be asked?
I don’t think so, but if you think of anything else, feel free to ask.
Ok thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat with me, and keep doing what you’re doing! And readers, I strongly encourage you to go check out everything John is doing, he has been a tremendous help and inspiration to me and countless other learning fiddlers, he’s awesome!
Be sure to go find what John is doing at all the following links
Well, I’ve wanted to do this for a while, I’ve played a couple of dobros before and they’re super fun and I’ve wanted one for a couple years.
So, I just joined resohangout.com, and some people over there recommended I put a riser nut on an acoustic guitar to start learning. Shipping here isn’t reliable enough for me to order a real one, so I decided to make one out of wood.
So the only wood we have a bunch of is bamboo, which is a great wood, but has several limitations. It only comes in hollow round tube shaped pieces, cuz that’s how it grows, so it’s good for some projects, and not others. Also, it’s very fibrous, which means it’s very strong, but also there’s a lot of tearout when you cut it.
So I got a piece of bamboo, and carefully cut it to roughly the shape and size necessary, and then sanded it where necessary and then cut the string slots. I didn’t quite line up the slots correctly, so the bass strings are a bit crowded, but it’s not a big deal
So I’ve now installed it, and am playing my entire dobro repertoire (two songs) over and over…. fortunately (for my family), the guitar I put it on (pictured) is very quiet in general, and the bridge is ripping off so I tuned down a whole step. All that means that it’s very quiet and not annoying.
And as a slide bar I’m using a piece of a bicycle seatpost that we cut off of my brothers bike so the seat would go lower.
This is a beautiful tune, which is uncharacteristic for a banjo tune….
I first heard the Hartley family playing this on YouTube, and immediately wanted to learn it.
This is about the fifteenth take, as I was having some trouble getting through twice cleanly. And I had to tune my banjo down half a step cuz the dtuners wouldn’t stay in tune at pitch, so I tuned down a half step and suddenly they stay in tune. I have no clue how that works… but I di like how it sounds slightly lower, I love lowered tunings.
Not sure I did the tune justice, but I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
So all the time I hear people make comments about people like “oh he’s so musically talented, I could never get that good” etc. and it kind of irritates me.
So I’m just gonna talk a little about being naturally talented vs practice.
Now the assumption that most people seem to make is that to get really good at something (this applies to anything, but I’ll be specifically talking about music) you have to be gifted, and otherwise you’ll always be mediocre. And there is the tiniest element of truth in that, but it tends to stop people from even trying. I’m naturally quite musical, and playing music does come somewhat easier to me than it might for someone else, but it wouldn’t be fair for someone to say “oh he’s just musically gifted” cuz while that may be true, it completely overlooks the 1000s of hours I’ve put in behind an instrument. Sure natural talent makes a difference, but while you’re going to work, I’m practicing. While you’re playing video games, I’m practicing. While you’re going and getting a girlfriend and wasting money on her, I’m practicing. My name could be practicing with how much I said that. “Hi I’m practicing”…..
So natural talent is definitely a thing, but it’s not the be all and end all that people seem to think. If you’re naturally talented at something, great, go practice it and nauseam to get really good. Are you not naturally talented at something? Great, then go practice until you’re great at it. Everyone is on the same path towards excellence, just some people get a headstart.
And that’s another thing, talent isn’t always given in equal portions, there’s different levels of talent that each person has. The one thing that is consistent, is that if you go put in 1000 hours, you’ll be much improved over where you were before. Don’t resent those born with more talent than you, practice until your hard work trumps their talent.
Btw, when I say “talent” I mean natural ability or propensity, as opposed to “skill” which would be ability. Talent is free, skills have to be worked for. By that token I think America’s got talent should be called America’s got skills, cuz they don’t measure talent they measure skill.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go practice.
“Practice till your fingers bleed, then practice one more hour”
If you’re listening to that, I’ll explain what you’re hearing. That is the regional honeybees choir tryouts winners. Coming from windmill hive, they have some of the most talented bee singers around, and the director is none other than the amazingly talented Mr. Shuyeona. I joined them as an instrumental accompanist (each choir group was allowed three instrumentalists).
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it…..
Ok, for real, this is Dr. John Cockman’s arrangement of Ashokan Farewell for three fiddles. I’m playing all three fiddles, and the backing track is from his website: bluegrassdaddy.com
But the story was more interesting wasn’t it?
“If the truth is too boring, don’t tell a lie, just live a more interesting truth”
So I started recording this a couple months ago, and got almost done but didn’t add a bass track. Then I got busy and wasn’t able to finish till yesterday, when I decided to finish it and add some pictures so i could put it on YouTube. Well, I’m definitely not a computer person, that project was so hard….. but i managed to finish it.
If you haven’t yet, please go check out my YouTube channel, leave a comment and like, and subscribe, cuz I put up new videos fairly often. Here’s a link to that
“Perfection is unattainable. But if we strive for perfection we may achieve excellence.”
-Vince Lombardi (I think)
So, as a musician, I’m always practicing, and there’s that saying “practice makes perfect” which is totally not true, but practice does make you better. So I’m on the journey of chasing perfection, which I know I’ll never get, but the things I know I’ll learn on the journey make it worth it. Now I always watch videos of “professionals” playing, and their picking is so clean and creative and it seems perfect from my perspective, but from their perspective they might be having an off day, playing sloppily or boring lines, but they’re at such a level that their off days are better than my best days. It’s like my flexibility, on an off day, without warming up, I can place my palms flat on the floor next to my feet with my legs straight, while other people might warm up and still not touch their toes.
One of my current goals is to sound like a professional musician. And I’m not sure what that means exactly, but listening to myself playing there’s just a level of precision and awesomeness that’s not there. And I have a hunch that probably part of the reason is that I never (or very rarely anyway) get to play with others, which means there’s no accountability with my timing, dynamics, taste, or even being in tune. These are all things that I have to try to keep straight by myself, but there’s no obvious consequence if I don’t. If I drop a beat playing by myself, no one notices (except maybe me). If I drop a beat playing with someone, it’s immediately noticeable and trainwrecking. And clean tone is still something I find difficult, when I play through a solo on guitar, up to half the notes might get muted, and I don’t really know why. Same on mandolin. On the banjo I’m a bit better, but still not where I want to be. And on fiddle, when I’m playing I’ll think I sound good, but then I go watch the video back (I film myself a lot) and I notice things like weak bowing, scratchy string crossings, and bad intonation.
Maybe I’m expecting too much of myself for the time I’ve been playing, or maybe I’m being too strict cuz it’s myself. But i doubt it’s that second one, cuz I am able to look honestly at my picking and can tell when someone is better than me, or if I’m better than them, and I’m not afraid to point out errors in others performances, I just might be more polite than if I’m looking in a mirror.
Either way, I’m working on sounding more professional, cuz I assume that’s a prerequisite for being one? Or maybe you don’t sound that way till after you are one. Anyway, I probably should be practicing rather than typing….
Now I’m going to go workout, cuz you don’t get superhuman flexibility by sitting around watching TV (good thing I don’t have one of those)
“The harder you try to think of a good quote, the harder it gets to find one”