The Cockman Family
by John E. Cockman, Sr.
Born and raised in Sherrill’s Ford, North Carolina, the Cockman Family has preserved and presented old-time gospel hymns to audiences for nearly 25 years. Their traditional style features four-part family harmonies with the accompaniment of traditional bluegrass instrumentation. Since launching their performing career in February of 1988, the Cockman Family has developed the classic family harmonies and youthful flair that is the Cockman Family trademark. Their unique bluegrass gospel style, original songs, and original arrangements of the old gospel songs have been immensely popular with their audiences. This group’s family ties are strong and the warmth of that is conveyed in their performances. The group members include John Cockman, Sr. (guitar), Carolina (Cockman) Fisher (lead vocals), Dr. John Cockman, Jr. (fiddle and vocals), Billy Cockman (banjo, guitar, and vocals), David Cockman (upright bass and vocals) and Ben Cockman (mandolin, guitar, slide guitar, and vocals).
Even as young children, music was the center of their everyday entertainment. Dad and Mom played the guitar and piano and encouraged the children to participate by singing along. Harmonizing at an early age was important. It made each sibling feel an integral part of the group by producing vocal harmony. They each gained musical interest by playing the piano first, then creating those melodies on the stringed instruments. They each play multiple instruments and often switch instruments on their recordings and live performances. They feel that the instrumentation should enhance their vocal arrangements. The instrumentation and harmonies blend together, giving the songs added life to inspire audiences to remember and love the old-time hymns that so many grew up listening to.
The Cockman Family Bluegrass Gospel Group has gained many valuable experiences because of the music they play. They have performed at churches, festivals, municipal events, weddings, funerals, and private functions. They have entertained from Florida to New York and as far west as Missouri and Vancouver, Canada. They have been included in the North Carolina Arts Council’s Touring and Resident Artist Directory, played three summers at Dollywood and Opryland, and have been named “The 12 Most Creative Families in America” by USA Today Weekend and American Greetings Cards. In 2006, Caroline was selected the Female Vocalist of the year by PowerGrass Internet Radio and in 2007 the family was selected the Bluegrass Gospel Group of the year by PowerGrass Internet Radio. The Cockman Family was featured in seven Arthur Smith “Then and Now” television specials and the Arthur Smith “Carolina Christmas” special produced by UNC-TV. They also appeared as part of the UNC-TV special “George Beverly Shea and Friends.” UNC-TV also produced a one-hour Christmas special featuring the Cockman Family in “A Cockman Family Christmas, Maker of the Stars.” Their Christmas special was also aired on American Public Television. The Cockman Family recently showcased their music in a 25-minute performance at the 2010 International Bluegrass Music Association in Nashville, Tennessee. The Cockman Family annually hosts the Ole Time Fiddler’s and Bluegrass Festival in Union Grove, North Carolina. It is the oldest, consecutive-running fiddler’s convention in America. They host and coordinate the music portion of the annual Murray’s Mill Harvest Festival in Catawba, North Carolina, and participate each year at the Smoky Mt. Folk Festival at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina.
All four brothers maintain a professional level of instrumental skill that allows them to teach others to play as well. Three of the brothers have full-time jobs and teach after work. Ben teaches guitar, mandolin, banjo, and fiddle full-time. Many of their students are now musicians and are using their talents making music in various ways. Caroline teaches voice and writes gospel songs for the group. She was selected the 2011 Songwriter of the year by PowerGrass Internet Radio. In addition to the old-time hymns, four of the five siblings have written gospel songs that have been recorded on their albums. Billy won the 2009 North Carolina banjo championship in Wilkesboro at the Carolina in the Fall Festival. He also won the 2010 South Carolina banjo championship at the Renofest in Hartsville, South Carolina. Ben won the 2012 South Carolina Flat-pick Guitar Championship at Renofest in Hartsville, SC., as well as the 2012 Flat-pick Championship at Merlefest, N. Wilkesboro, and the 2012 West Virginia State Flat-pick Guitar Championship held at the Robin Kessinger Festival in Gandeeville, WV. The family has won numerous festival competitions throughout the state to include three-time winners of the Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Best Performance Award in Asheville.
All the siblings are now married and have families of their own. Their performances include eight grandchildren at almost all of their concerts. Their ages range from four to ten years-old. They are being taught by their parents to play the stringed instruments and harmonize with each other as their parents did a few short years ago. The tradition lives on.
John Sr. is the father and the guitar player of the Cockman Family. He is married to Jane, and they reside in Sherrill’s Ford. His responsibilities include radio and television promotions, as well as scheduling and advertising. He is also in charge of all the emcee work for the group. John Sr. recently retired from teaching cabinet making in public schools and is also an experienced guitar builder.
Original publication citation:
Cockman, John E., Sr. “The Cockman Family.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 58.2 (Fall-Winter 2011): 23-26.