Photos courtesy of CDC Artists, Milton, Florida
Amanda Cook and her band have become a household name and regulars on the bluegrass circuit. With three CD projects under her belt, a seven-year, five-CD project contract with Mountain Fever Records and recording engineer and producer job, it is clear that Cook has her own style and unique capabilities that distinguish her from other vocalists and band leaders.
Born and raised in Pensacola, FL, her musical background is typical of stellar artists, since her family influence grounded her with deep roots in bluegrass music. Her mother made music a part of everyday life. In middle school and high school Cook grew up with a banjo playing father. She went to jams and festivals with her father, and in her late 20’s, began to seriously take notice of the music her father had played all her life.
Cook fondly recalls, “Daddy gave me a copy of all the Bluegrass Album Band albums [quintessential bluegrass] and told me to learn all the tenor parts to all these songs, and you’ll have a start.” Her musical influences and heroes are Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Emerson, and The Bluegrass Album Band. Cook also discovered Rhonda Vincent, Alison Krauss and Union Station and Carrie Hassler and fell in love with their sounds.
In 2007, she joined the band that her father formed, “High Cotton” and started on the mandolin. Cook recalls, “After a bit we needed a bass player and I soon took up that job. I always loved to sing and one of my favorite things to do to this day is jam on bass and sing a tenor part with the boys. In 2013, I took up the idea of independently releasing a record and came home from work in tears when I told my husband what my plans were. Taken aback at first that I ‘just came up with the idea’ he fully supported my dream of becoming a full-time musician and the rest is history. I wake up often thinking that the path I am on now is so different than I expected, but I thank the Lord for it everyday. I love bluegrass music and the opportunities it has afforded me.”
Cook’s relationship with Mountain Fever Records evolved over time, into a dream job. Cook lauds her record label. “The team at Mountain Fever is the best in the business and I knew when I started out Mountain Fever was the label I wanted.” After completing the session for Point of No Return Cook hinted to Mark Hodges that she was really interested in engineering and producing.
Later that fall, Hodges gave her the chance to work on her first project. Cook recalls, “I engineered and produced the first project for Colebrook Road on Mountain Fever, On Time. I was completely hooked. I had flown to Virginia for that session and quickly realized we may have to make a move to Virginia. My husband and I joked about it, but in December of 2018 we came to Virginia and put a contract on a house. We moved officially in May of 2019 and I’ve been working full-time at Mountain Fever as the Production and Studio Services Manager. I’ve had the opportunity to work on projects that I still can’t believe. One of the most incredible moments was realizing I was going to produce and engineer for Junior Sisk. Talk about a dream!!! I’ve always loved Junior’s work and the icing on the cake was getting to engineer while one of my favorite singers, Heather Mabe, sang. I love the process of coming up with the arrangements, and especially producing vocals. As I said before, I never expected this path but I’m so thankful to Mark Hodges for giving me this opportunity and giving me another outlet to create music. Working closely together to achieve our recording, touring and financial goals is top priority. I have been blessed that creative direction is left to Aaron Ramsey and that’s a freedom for which I am so thankful.”
There is a mutual admiration society at the record label, and Mark Hodges, founder, lauds Cook. “Amanda has the right heart for bluegrass music. She loves it like a mother loves a child and she’s always helping others out, sharing her experiences and willing to do what it takes to help anyone. She’s a first-class studio engineer, a knowledgeable producer, an amazing cook, and it’s amazing how she can juggle her stage career, her studio career and still be a great wife and mom to her family.”
Melody Cochran, radio representative and artist relations, at Mountain Fever Records, holds admiration for Cook. “I like to think back to when I first met Amanda Cook at a band competition we put together for Bluegrass Island at the Outer Banks about 6 years ago. She and the band traveled a grueling distance to get there. The buoyant enthusiasm, determination and joy Amanda held throughout, including their strong performance left a really good impression on me. I get to work with her more now that she’s living in Virginia, and I’m still impressed…even more so as the years roll on!”
In 2018 Cook became represented by The Wilson Pickins’ Promotions team, which has provided invaluable booking, promotional and tour support. Wilson Pickins’ represents many major bluegrass artists and bands. About Cook, Melanie Wilson heaps well deserved accolades. “Working with Amanda Cook has been such a joy for me. Not only have I experienced working with a consummate professional, but someone who is completely dedicated to and motivated by her craft. Her vocals are fierce, emotional, and have an endless range for telling stories. Amanda is also one of the kindest, most genuine people I have ever known and her talent is just as big as her sweet, country heart. She is a true inspiration for all new artists in this business on how it should be done and done right.”
On Singing, Songwriting, and Band Leadership
Cook’s singing, song-writing, multi-instrument capabilities, engineering and production expertise have resulted in a number of original songs topping the charts. At this writing, she has garnered two second round IBMA nominations; “Female Vocalist of the Year,” and “Album of the Year” for Narrowing the Gap. Cook informs, “Inspirations for songs come in one line here and there; sometimes it’s just a passing thought that I just have to write down, or sometimes it’s a completely constructive process of building a verse or two and then a chorus. I don’t force my song writing, meaning I found if I say to myself, ‘sit down and write a song’ I come up empty handed. I do much better just letting ‘it’ happen. Sad, precious or happy moments in my life have a song associated with them. Singing gives me the opportunity to put a song to every moment and since I’ve been a bluegrass musician, what moments I’ve had!”
As a vocalist, Amanda wants more than anything to be herself, effectively tell a story, and elevate emotions in the audience. Cook says, “I want them to feel the same way I do when I sing a sad pretty song, or feel the joy when I sing a happy one. As a band leader, I learn something new on every gig. My main goal is to make sure my band is musically fed and that they are thriving as musicians. I want to challenge them, as they challenge me. I have an incredible band, they not only are some of the best musicians in the industry, but they are amazing humans. We are fortunate that we function like a family and we all carry a huge amount of respect for one another. I know that a key to the success we’ve had are the open lines of communication we maintain. Although I know I am, I don’t think of myself as a band leader, I’m just a part of a great team.”
Deep Water was Cook’s attempt to step out and make her place in the bluegrass industry. With a great amount of passion for the standard she wanted to establish for herself, Cook informs, “I wanted to make amazing music and at the same time stay true to myself, I didn’t want to sound like anyone else. I sat down and wrote a mission statement and a list of five-year goals for myself and the band. I was so fortunate to go into recording with my best friend, Carolyne Van Lierop (Boone), who believed in me (far more than I did myself at that point) and that meant such a great deal to me, since I’ve always admired her musicianship so very much. We co-wrote the title track ‘Deep Water’ and when I gave her the lyrics I had so far, she said ‘that’s a perfect description of where we are going.’ We weren’t going to let the hard work ahead of us drag us down or look at the insurmountable task ahead of us and give up. I just knew that this album was going to be a start for us.”
Point Of No Return was Cook’s sophomore project. She started the preproduction process with the same amount of enthusiasm and energy as her first project. George Mason and Joshua Faul had become full-time band members, making up the four-piece band. They started rehearsing the songs Cook pulled together and originals co-written with Vanlierop-Boone. Cook adds, “It elevated the experience for me because one of the goals I set was to have my touring band perform on my albums. During the preproduction stage, I was taking mandolin lessons from a friend of mine, Ashby Frank, and he shared the title track with me ‘Point of No Return.’ I knew that it was the perfect title for the album because it completely described where I was in my career. The day before the session began I signed a seven-year, five-album contract with Mountain Fever and I knew that this was really just the beginning.”
Narrowing the Gap, the most recent project holds a very special place in Cook’s heart. While there was good response from Point of No Return, she received feedback that it was not grassy enough, too soft, and too contemporary. Taken with a grain of salt, Cook looked at the big picture and evaluated the band’s status with respect to the goals she set years back. The band had finally put all the pieces of the puzzle in place as far as band members went. Aaron “Frosty” Foster joined the band on guitar and Troy Boone joined on mandolin.
Cook informs, “I wanted to take that and run with it! I carefully selected material still with my sound, but with more of a grassier feel. We all knew when we left that session we had something special. I remember sitting on the walkway outside the studio with tears running down my face because I was so proud of the people that were willing to play with me and the incredible album we had just created as a team! When I starting thinking about titles, I sent Narrowing the Gap to the band and said, ‘Guys, I think we’ve got a title,’ this album narrows the gap between where we were and where we are headed. The band agreed, and we all knew it was special because we felt that family bond between us this album brought us, and still does.”
Amanda’s band includes Carolyn Van Lierop Boone on banjo, Joshua Faul on bass, George Mason on fiddle, Troy Boone on mandolin, Bradley Wallen on guitar, and Aaron “Frosty” Foster, on guitar [in memoriam].
Rewards and Challenges
A primary reward for Cook is seeing her parents and family take pride in what she has accomplished. “I love to see them sitting in the audience watching me do what I love. I especially love the pride I see when my Dad talks to others about my music or what he’s seen me do. It’s so amazing to get to carry on the tradition of bluegrass music for my Dad and I get so excited when I get to call and tell him who we shared a stage with or like when I called and told him that I got to sit at our merchandise table next to Doyle Lawson’s at Christmas in the Smokies and we had a nice long chat! Personally, the biggest challenge for me is living up to my own standards and keeping confidence in myself. The music business is a roller coaster of high highs and low lows. It’s so easy to give in to the negative and there have been several times that I asked myself ‘Why I am doing this?’ I am so lucky to have a wonderful group around me that push me when I need it and band members don’t let the negative take over.”
As for the future, Cook will continue to mark off those bucket list items set out for the band and herself. They have a new album in the works and are continuing to add tour dates. This Bluegrass Girl will continue exploring and learning engineering and producing. Following in her father’s footsteps, Cook is passing on her musical passion to her daughter Olivia and son Ethan. For Cook, the sky is the limit and she plans to shoot for the stars.