BY, Angela Bold.
Jeff Cook, one-third of Country Music Hall of Fame group Alabama, has Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement and causes tremors.
Cook, the fiddle player and guitarist for the band, was diagnosed about four years ago. He and his bandmates — Randy Owen (vocals/guitar) and Teddy Gentry (bass) — have kept the diagnosis private until now.
Because of how the disease is impacting his body, Cook is now choosing to step back from touring, effective April 29.
“This disease robs you of your coordination, your balance, and causes tremors,” Cook wrote in a prepared statement for fans that he read aloud to journalists from the USA TODAY NETWORK. “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.”
As Cook finished reading his statement, Owen reached across the table, took the bottle of water Cook was struggling to open, popped the lid loose and handed it back.
It was a gesture that spoke volumes: Gentry and Owen have protected Cook’s interests for years. When people started speculating that his issues were due to a substance abuse problem, members struggled to continue to keep his secret.
“That’s the part that hurts so bad, for people to think that he’s intoxicated or something,” Owen said. “He’s not, and me and Teddy wanted to say a lot of things to these people.
“I did tell one guy one time it was none of his damn business,” Gentry said. “I couldn’t help it.”
From left, Jeff Cook, Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry, of Alabama, wave to the crowd at the Merle Haggard Tribute concert at Bridgestone Arena Thursday, April 6, 2017 in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
Cook’s first clue that there was a problem came when he couldn’t accurately cast his fishing lure anymore. Next he started struggling to hit his guitar notes. Privately, Cook thought he might have a pinched nerve. Owen and Gentry worried that he had suffered a stroke. Cook’s doctor told the guitarist he might have Parkinson’s disease, and when the test results came back and confirmed it, Cook said he felt “empty.”
He told Owen and Gentry immediately. The three of them knew Cook might have to step back — and because they’d already faced the possibility of losing a member when Owen was diagnosed with cancer in 2010 — they already knew what they would do. The remaining members would keep playing — with Cook’s blessing.
“He wants us to go on,” Owen said. “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.’”
Since Alabama debuted on a national level in 1980, the group has sold more than 75 million albums and singles, and charted 43 No. 1 songs. Their biggest hits include Mountain Music, Dixieland Delight, If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band) and I’m in a Hurry (and Don’t Know Why).
Cook is planning to play the group’s May 27 concert in Orange Beach, Ala., as well as an upcoming fan event. Beyond that, he intends to drop in and sing when he feels like it.
The band holds out hope that Cook’s health will improve and he’ll be able to rejoin them on tour on a regular basis. They stress that his microphone will always be on stage — regardless of whether he’s there to use it.
“Whenever he can be there, he will,” Owen added. “And I believe he will. I don’t see the future, but I feel the future.”