In 1994, after more than 20 years together as a band, the Cox Family won a Grammy Award for their work with Alison Krauss on I Know Who Holds Tomorrow. Recognition, however, hasn’t changed the group’s straightforward approach to gospel music. “The Cox Family is pure American music, plain and simple,” wrote Gordon Ely in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “An amalgam of folk, blues, country and gospel, their music, at every twist and turn, joyfully defies easy categorization.”
Critics have praised the group’s smooth blend of harmonies, featured in the popular film O Brother, Where Art Thou? Anautomobile accident following completion of the film, however, curtailed the group’s touring schedule and threatened future performances. Despite this adversity, the Cox Family continues to pursue the only life they know. “Music has been a way of life for us from the word go,” Willard Cox told Allen J. M. Smith of the Specht Newspaper Group.
The Cox Family began performing locally in 1972 at fairs and church socials throughout Texas, Mississippi, and Arkansas. “One day we were invited somewhere,” patriach Willard Cox told Smith, “and they made the mistake of paying us. We had been doing it for fun.” Willard Cox worked in the oil fields of Cotton Valley, Louisiana, and in his spare time played the fiddle and sang with his brothers. Over time, his son Sidney and daughters Evelyn and Suzanne began joining their father to perform at family get-togethers. “As we got older,” Sidney Cox told Ely, “I think Dad realized he had a band on his hands.” While the Cox Family sang both country and bluegrass, they made their reputation singing gospel. “We’re heavy into our faith,” Willard Cox told Ely. “We believe all things come from above and all that we have is just given to us on loan.”
In the late 1980s, Sidney Cox recalled to John Beavers in the Press-Herald, “We were at a festival in Texas, when we ran into Alison Krauss. She liked us and we became friends.” Krauss gave one of the Cox Family’s home recordings to Rounder Records, then produced the group’s first album on Rounder, Everybody’s Reaching Out for Someone, in 1993. The Cox Family further expanded their audience base when they opened for the Counting Crows on the band’s 1994 North American tour. “We never did like to categorize ourselves as hard-core bluegrass,” Willard Cox told Smith.
In 1994 the Cox Family recorded the Grammy Award-winning I Know Who Holds Tomorrow with Krauss, a recording that Daniel Durchholz in MusicHound Folk called “nearly perfect.” In 1995 the Cox Family released Beyond the City and followed it with their major label debut, Just When We’re Thinking It’s Over on Asylum. Randy Lewis noted in the Los Angeles Times that the album had “the same fundamental appeal as Krauss’ recordings: an endearingly pure emotional approach rooted in bluegrass, country, and folk tradition.” Doug Pullen, writing in MusicHound Folk, called it “a rarity that manages to update traditional bluegrass in a way that should not disturb purists.”
In 1996 the group won a Big Easy Entertainment Award for Best Country/Folk Artist; that same year Beyond the City was nominated for a Grammy Award.
The awards heightened the group’s profile and led to their involvement in the Ethan and Joel Coen film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Jay Lustig in the Newark, New Jersey Star-Ledger said “[t]he Cox Family’s ‘I Am Weary’ was a hauntingly serene reminder of how the finest country music has the unerring ability to look both life and death squarely in the eye.” The band also made a cameo in the film, spending four days on location for two minutes on film. “We knew how to record songs, but we didn’t know anything about making movies,” Willard Cox told Beavers.
Throughout their career, the Coxes have always been adamant about the importance of family. In the mid-1990s the group cut back their performances when Marie Cox was diagnosed with breast cancer. In 2000, after finishing their work on O Brother, Willard and Marie were injured in a horrific accident that threatened the group’s future. Their car had been pulled to the side of the road when a logging truck hit them from behind, trapping the couple in the car. “We’ve never been in an accident like this,” Marie Cox told Jessica Wang in the Shreveport, Louisiana, Times. “We’re in tough shape and don’t know how it’s going to turn out. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Members include Evelyn Cox, guitar, vocals; Sidney Cox, banjo, guitar, dobro, vocals; Suzanne Cox, mandolin, vocals; Willard Cox, fiddle, vocals.
Group formed in Cotton Valley, LA, 1972; recorded Everybody’s Reaching Out for Someone, 1993; released Beyond the City, 1995, and Just When We’re Thinking It’s Over, 1996; recorded “I Am Weary” for O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, 2000.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best Southern Gospel, Country Gospel, or Bluegrass Album for I Know Who Holds Tomorrow (with Alison Krauss), 1994; Big Easy Entertainment Award, Best Country/Folk Artist, 1996.
Addresses: Record company—Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140, phone: (617) 354-4840, website: http://www.rounder.com.
Marie suffered a broken vertebra, arm, and rib, along with a concussion and a bruised kidney; Willard’s spine was crushed, leaving him unable to use his legs. Although a number of performances had been scheduled prior to the accident, all were put on hold following the accident. “The Cox Family is The Cox Family as a group,” Evelyn Cox told Wang. “That’s the way we started, and that’s the way we perform.”
Overcoming incredible odds, the Cox Family returned to performing the following year. They appeared at Shreveport’s Centenary College graduation ceremony in 2002, taking the place of a typical commencement speaker. “I know it’s a tough world,” Willard Cox was quoted by Donecia Pea of the Shreveport Times, “but you’re in the right place to make it better and maybe even straighten it out.” Although the band now tours less frequently, the family built a recording studio at home. “We’re who we are and that’s all there is to it,” Willard Cox told Beavers. “There’s nothing really special to us. We just have a few awards for doing what we’ve always done, and that’s sing.”
Everybody’s Reaching Out for Someone, Rounder, 1993.
(With Alison Krauss) I Know Who Holds Tomorrow, Rounder, 1994.
Beyond the City, Rounder, 1995.
Just When We’re Thinking It’s Over, Elektra, 1996.
(Contributor) O Brother, Where Art Thou? (soundtrack), Universal, 2000.
Walters, Neal, editor, MusicHound Folk: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Los Angeles Times, August 4, 1996, p. 5.
Richmond Times-Dispatch (Richmond, VA), June 12, 1994, p. J-10.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), June 16, 2001, p. 33.
Times (Shreveport, LA), July 24, 2000, p. B1; August 21, 2002, p. B3.
“Webster’s Cox Family Wows Crowd,” Minden Press-Herald,http://www.press-herald.com (June 15, 2003).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.