Like a set of twin Appalachian peaks, this North Carolina artist is a towering presence in two separate but related disciplines of mountain music. He is one of the many wonderful singing banjo pickers the area has produced, a list that includes many marvels of old-time music, such as Cockerham's regular playing partner Tommy Jarrell as well as Bascomb Lunsford, Frank Proffitt, Byard Ray, George Peagram, Lee Wallin, and Doc Watson. Cockerham's banjo recordings, such as "Roustabout," are considered classic examples of the old-time, pre-bluegrass banjo style. Then there's the other peak, on which our hero is wailing away on fiddle, plugged directly into the unbroken current of traditional themes and styles that have been passed from generation to generation in this region. Both Cockerham and Jarrell were well-known and influential fiddlers in the Round Peak area of the North Carolina mountains, around the town of Mount Airy. To couch potatoes, this may be more identifiable as the birthplace of actor and comedian Andy Griffith. The popular character he created of a small town North Carolina sheriff would certainly have approved of radio station WPAQ, both the music the station played and its decision to begin broadcasting on Groundhog Day 1948. The station has bravely survived in Mount Airy ever since, a regular small-town radio station that features hardcore country music, including old-time and bluegrass. Cockerham is known to have played on this station in its early years, yet no recordings of him or the other local musicians from this era have been found. By the time the station was on the air, the music he was playing was considered old hat amongst the general public that had once embraced it. His time would come again, though, and he would emerge a bona fide hero in the course of several different folk revivals on the American music scene. In fact, he found it impossible to retire from the job of playing music, and was in most demand in his senior years. In the '60s, he was a member of the group the Camp Creek Boys, a skilled and spirited gaggle of old-time pickers featuring Kyle Creed, Paul Sutphin, Ronald Collins, Ernest East, Verlin Clifton, and Roscoe Russell. Cockerham recorded in a few different contexts for the County label, a duet record with Tommy Jarrell considered one of the Holy Grail items of the old-time music world. The two players became local fixtures around the Durham area, where the folk music scene was in something of a tizzy. One local impresario hosted regular loft sessions at which the old-time legends would not only play, but teach their music to local musicians and graduate students. These younger players marched forth and eventually organized their own bands, outfits such as the Hollow Rock String Band, the Fuzzy Mountain Boys, and most famous of all, the Red Clay Ramblers.
Speaking of rambling, those living in Mount Airy would probably wind up rambling back and forth between their home state and nearby Virginia quite often, so the Virginia-Carolina Ramblers made perfect sense as a band name for one of Cockerham's '70s projects, this one involving a fellow Camp Creek Boy, Clyde Isaacs. Cockerham also played with young old-time banjoist Bob Carlin during this period and was something of a mentor to him. Both Cockerham's banjo and fiddle playing styles have been analyzed and studied by old-time music scholars. Instructional texts have been published, including tablature notation for banjo created by Miles Krassen. ~ Eugene Chadbourne