Story Jason Browne | Photograph Chris Jenkins
As a musician, Bill Cooke is like the Blues.
He appeals to the middle-age-and-up crowd with a few young fans scattered here and there. The guitar is his bread and butter. He’s from Mississippi. And regardless of how many musical genres have become more popular in recent decades, he just won’t go away.
The 58-year-old Starkville guitarist is a frequent guest at Dave’s Dark Horse Tavern in Starkville and Anthony’s Good Food Market in West Point. He can be found performing rockabilly or blues classics or as part of various ensembles from duos to trios and up. But the original duo was Cooke and Mike Johnson in their hometown of Jackson in the early 1950s. “(Mike) got a guitar and started taking lessons. When I heard him play I said ‘Well, this is it. This is for me,’” said Cooke.
He campaigned for a guitar and got one for Christmas, a black Stella acoustic with extra thick strings. “The action was terrible. You had to really want to play guitar,” he recalls. But he did, so his parents sprung for lessons;
30 minutes, once a week with the same guy who taught Mike.
When the Beatles hit the scene in the mid-’60s, Cooke and Johnson got organized, got some paying gigs, and he’s been semi-pro ever since.
Semi-pro in the sense that Cooke has been good enough on a guitar to get paid to play for the majority of his life, but he’s rarely worked strictly as a musician. Dr. Cooke holds a Ph.D. in forestry and works in geosciences at Mississippi State University, but he’s been a guitar instructor, a tennis pro (in Portugal, no less) and held sundry odd jobs.
His musical experiences are similarly diverse. Cooke has played in country bands, Chicano bands, hard rock bands, blues bands, alternative bands and rockabilly bands. In Portugal, all they wanted to hear was Elvis. When flying solo, he can be found playing folk acoustic or Chicago blues electric.
“I’ve been playing electric since the third grade. I’m not as good at it as acoustic, but I think the things we’re not as good at we want to do more of that,” he said. “Plus, I can just turn the amp up. What I lack in proficiency I can make up in volume and distortion.”
Flexibility has been Cooke’s calling card throughout his life as a musician and may account for his longevity. There are times when his mission is defined, such as blues night at Anthony’s. But he’s generally willing to play to his crowd’s tastes.
“Every time you play you’re going to hear something like ‘Play Freebird!’ If you have fun with it and try not to take it personally, you realize people are out drinking and getting their jollies. They’re not there to hear you so much as they’re there to meet girls,” he said. “At the end of the night, my goal is to not piss somebody off or make them have a bad time because they’re not into what I’m doing.
“If you change a set list to make a crowd happy, you might lose a little of your identity, but you’ll work.”
That’s not to say Cooke plays strictly for the money. He’s a musician first and a contractor second. And to that end, he’ll gladly share the spotlight to promote the musical community of the Golden Triangle.
“I love having local musicians in the crowd come up and sit in with me for a song or two. Even the young ones. Even if it’s unexpected,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s part of my longevity, but it’s my obligation to help young musicians. That kind of give and take is important. It’s liberating for me if someone comes up and we put something together that enhances the night for everyone at the bar.”