In her essay “The Lost Art of The South,” Rebecca Parker laments the demise of the music Emmylou Harris characterized as having “that washed in the blood element.” For Parker, “The artists who embody the South do not wash worries in whimsy, but attempt connection amidst isolation, loss, and disillusionment.”
Think “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” or a tale from Eudora Welty. In contrast, most of the music played today on country music radio, as Parker notes, is about “what we do in the South … but not who we are.”
Parker grew up in Virginia listening to the same country music that Cameron Federal Cook and her husband, Russell Cook—the duo at the heart of the Little Country Giants—have been listening to and playing for most of their lives.
It’s to that deep Southern well of sadness that the Cooks return to again and again for inspiration. As Russell, also a painter and teacher at a community college, recently said, “Some of the songs I write have a dark edge to them. The visual art I’m drawn to is the same—it deals with the big themes of tragedy and heartbreak, death and destruction.”
Cameron’s approach is a little more lighthearted, offsetting Russell’s sometimes dour reflections with airy melodicism.
The couple first met playing in a bluegrass band in college. Russell played guitar, Cameron played bass. During a Christmas break they took some time to record what Russell calls “a rough CD” of some of their songs. The CD, a hit with their friends, gave them the confidence to step out on their own. They enlisted Russell’s long time friend Joseph Evans to join the band. “He was a natural guy to step in and do all the hot licks,” Russell said. With Joseph’s wife, Julie, they began gigging all over the Southeast as Little Country Giants.
That group released a couple of albums and were developing a reputation for a unique mix of ragtime, western swing, Piedmont-style blues and country music when thieves stole Russell’s Martin D18 guitar and Cameron’s stand-up bass. Around that same time, Evans, a lawyer, realized he had to choose between his growing law practice and the band.
Friends organized a benefit for the group and raised enough money to buy Cameron another bass. Russell had bought a mahogany archtop guitar just before the robbery, but the loss of their instruments and the disintegration of the original lineup broke their momentum. Added to that, Russell was breaking in the brand new instrument—“a completely different beast than the big bluegrass dreadnought (Martin guitar),” he said. “It took me probably fully a year to learn how to play it. It’s a guitar for playing single notes more than chords.”
Changing guitars altered his approach to writing. “It took me probably a year to write a song I liked on that guitar,” he said. The new guitar, smaller than the bulky Martin, allowed Russell to work on mastering the licks he’d picked up from Evans, who is a particularly nimble-fingered Piedmont-style blues picker. All of those agile jazzy breaks on their first two albums belong to Evans.
But it wasn’t just switching guitars that changed his approach. Russell had also been listening to “older folk songs, fiddle tunes and things like that where the melody is played on the guitar.” The shift in his playing was relatively subtle. The essence of Little Country Giants has always been Russell and Cameron, and while their understanding and embrace of the music has naturally broadened and deepened over time, their elemental sound remains unchanged.
When the original band dissolved, they began assembling a “gallery of musicians” who knew the music well enough that it didn’t sound “thrown together.” But lately they’ve begun forming another “pretty stable” lineup with a fiddle player (Rurik Nunan), a drummer (Matt Green), and most recently a dobro player (Jared Womack).
Their strengths are evident on their most recent album, 60 Grit. Listen, for example, to Nunan’s facile swing and Womack’s dobro—along with Green using brushes on the snare—spinning around the Cook’s airborne harmonies on “Trouble’s Hard To Find.” The three players form a fluidly elastic foundation for the singers’ eclectic approach, promising to make their Sunday show at Barking Legs one more to remember.
8 p.m. • Sunday, Feb. 17 • Barking Legs Theater • 1307 Dodds Ave. • (423)624-5347 • barkinglegs.org
Richard Winham is the producer and host of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.