John Cockman and his five children have been playing Gospel bluegrass music together for decades, including several special performances on PBS television.
The Sherrills Ford natives and North Carolina Council of the Arts Touring Artist group will be lighting up the stage and setting the tone Saturday at Mountain View Baptist church in Maiden for a cancer benefit concert for area native and family friend Gary Parker.
Though musically adept, the Cockmans never planned on forming a family band; it was an accident, John said.
He noted that each year he and his four boys would pass the sign for the areaâ€™s annual Moss Creek Fiddlers Convention, each time promising them that they would one day sing at the event. That day finally came in February 1988. The menâ€™s convention performance was considered the official start of The Cockman Family band, John said. At the time, the youngest Cockman male was just six-years-old. Today, heâ€™s 29.
During the early years, John was the all-male groupâ€™s only instrument player, strumming guitar behind his sonsâ€™ harmonies.
Three years later, the group gained some female flair after Johnâ€™s daughter Caroline replaced her brother Billy on vocals during a season when his voice began to change.
“I said, â€˜If you donâ€™t help us, weâ€™re going down the tubes,â€™ ” John said. “All it took was one song, and she was hooked.”
Caroline staked her claim at the mic after singing “Home Is Where the Heart Is,” a song her mother Jane had penned. Ever since that day, sheâ€™s been The Cockman Familyâ€™s lead singer, but the men still contribute harmonies and take the lead at various times, John said.
Over the years, the group introduced additional acoustic bluegrass instruments including banjo, mandolin, fiddle, dobro and upright bass, all of which include their own separate mics.
Although Jane doesnâ€™t play or sing in the band, she still contributes to the familyâ€™s musical calling.
“She makes sure Iâ€™m dressed for the occasion,” John said. “If it wasnâ€™t for her, we wouldnâ€™t be standing on stage.”
Janeâ€™s also passed down piano skills to all her children and nine grandchildren, most of whom live locally.
“I can whistle up seven grandchildren from my front porch,” John said.
They range in age from two to 12 and can all sing and play bluegrass instruments including the two oldest granddaughters, The Butterpats, whoâ€™ve become nationally-known yodeling cowgirls, winning the 2011 Western Music Associationâ€™s Harmony Yodeling Duo of the Year award and the 2011 WMA Youth Harmony award.
Nearly six months ago, The Cockman Family released their 20th album entitled “Dedicated.” John said each compilation contains both original tunes and traditional hymns revived in bluegrass style.
While the family typically performs at weddings, churches, civic groups and other town events throughout the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia, the members, who each maintain other jobs, often find it difficult to get together.
Despite The Cockman Familyâ€™s minimal touring schedule, John is confident that their voices are heard across national radio waves.
“It (music) does the traveling for us,” he said.
The group is also known for its numerous one-hour specials on American Public Television including performances with American musician Arthur Smith and legendary Gospel singer George Beverly Shea.
John considers performing with his children to be “just as natural as it can be.”
“Itâ€™s just what we do,” he said.
The band recently celebrated a number of wins including two group awards, the 2011 N.C. Community Traditions Award, given by the N.C. State Folklore Society, and the 2011 Bluegrass Gospel Group of the Year award, sponsored by online radio station Southern Branch Bluegrass, and one individual award for Caroline, who received PowerGrass Internet Radioâ€™s 2011 Songwriter of the Year award.
John said he had no idea how long his family would continue to take the stage, especially since the groupâ€™s beginnings were unintentional.
“We didnâ€™t mean to do this to start with,” he said.
Heâ€™s especially excited to be helping out a family friend this weekend.
“Iâ€™ve known Gary for years, and his daughter took piano from my wife,” John said.
He called Garyâ€™s kidney cancer a “tragedy.” “I wanted to be able to do something for him.
The event Saturday is free and open to the public. A love offering will be taken. Activities start at 5 p.m. with a poor manâ€™s supper and silent auction. The Cockman Family will perform at 7 p.m. For questions, contact (704) 483-5806.
For more information on the Gospel bluegrass group, visit www.cockmanfamily.com.