As the most successful country group of the Eighties, Alabama dominated the charts and scored a number of pop crossover hits. But it was the band's electrifying live shows that elevated them to legendary status and ensured their induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. Now the group faces the prospect of performing without long-serving fiddle and guitar player Jeff Cook, who has revealed he has Parkinson's disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system that causes tremors, rigid muscles and imprecise movement.
Cook, 67, says he was diagnosed with the disease about four years ago, and told his fellow Alabama members Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry immediately. He revealed he will step back from touring with the group effective April 29th, but made it clear he is not leaving the band. In a prepared statement for fans, which he read to the Tennessean on Tuesday, with Owen and Gentry seated beside him, he detailed the personal effect Parkinson's has had on him.
"This disease robs you of your coordination, your balance, and causes tremors," Cook wrote. "For me, this has made it extremely frustrating to try and play guitar, fiddle or sing. I've tried not to burden anyone with the details of my condition because I do not want the music to stop or the party to end and that won't change no matter what. Let me say, I'm not calling it quits, but sometimes our bodies dictate what we have to do, and mine is telling me it's time to take a break and heal."
Other than a May 27th show in Orange Beach, Alabama, and a fan event in the group's Fort Payne, Alabama, hometown in June, Cook says he will only make appearances with the group depending on how he's feeling. Other musicians will fill in for him going forward, but his fellow members Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry insist Cook will always have a place on stage.
"We could hire 10 people, but we can't replace Jeff Cook in the group Alabama," said Gentry, unable to hold back tears as he spoke. "Like Jeff said, when this is all you've ever known and you love the music, you want to see it go on as long as possible. Alabama has surpassed what any of us ever dreamed of, but I still love to play more or as much as I did [yesterday], and I know Jeff does, too."
The cultural impact of Alabama, since their first chart-topping single, "Tennessee River," in 1980, cannot be overstated. Forging a path that saw them blend traditional, fiddle-based country with hard-charging Southern rock, the group brought younger listeners to country radio and transformed the live-concert experience, paving the way for Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert and dozens of others who followed. Since their debut, Alabama have amassed 43 Number Ones, sold more than 75 million albums and earned three CMA Entertainer of the Year trophies, among dozens of other honors. After their first Farewell Tour, which was announced in 2002 and concluded in 2004, the members went on to various solo projects. In 2005, the group put their retirement on hold to play a benefit for victims of Hurricane Katrina, but Cook, who had recently undergone gastric bypass surgery, had to quit before the show ended. In 2010, Randy Owen faced a health scare of his own, having been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Since the group's initial retirement in 2004, Cook has released several solo LPs with his Allstar Goodtime Band, which includes the addition of a horn section. The band, minus drummer Mark Herndon, reunited in 2011 in Birmingham, Alabama, for a benefit concert following a devastating tornado in their home state. They resumed touring in 2013 and in 2015 released Southern Drawl, their first LP of new music in 14 years.
In August 2016, Cook, who had just celebrated his birthday, was guest of honor at the 10th annual Jeff Cook Days in Guntersville, Alabama, where the theme was "No Bad Days." At the event, Cook solemnly told Huntsville's WHNT News, "It's been a lot of fun. We might be here next year. Might not. We might not be here next year that's why there's no bad days."
With regard to the band's future as both a stage and recording act, the remaining members of Alabama have Cook's full blessing to continue in his absence.
"He wants us to go on," Owen told the Tennessean. "We want the music to go on. I'm going to be very honest. I don't know if I have the fire. The only way I do, is knowing that Jeff is totally, 'Go get it.'"
"Go get it," Cook replied, "with witnesses." He added later, "If I'm healed overnight, I'll be at the next show. I do believe in prayer and I'm not giving up."