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Johnny & Joan Cox Interview

Johnny Cox

Joan Cox

The following interview by Gib Sun appeared in the "Steel Guitar Rag" in 2003.

Gib: We’re with the legend Johnny Cox and his lovely wife Joan. We’ve got a problem here. She plays almost as well as Johnny, if that’s possible. In fact, Johnny, you say she plays better at times?

Johnny: Most definitely! She’s the better player in our house. No doubt!

Gib: I see you’ve learned the word that makes all marriages successful.

Johnny: Yes, Dear!

Joan: That’s exactly right. Make sure you say that.

Gib: Joan, you’ve been a busy lady. You’ve been secretary for the North Tennessee Steel Guitar Association for three years. Boy, that’s been our pleasure. Thank you for all of that.

Joan: You’re welcome. I was glad I could help out.

Gib: How did you run into Johnny Cox the first time?

Joan: I knew of him, hearing Bob Delaloye talk about all the players, and I had heard him. I went to a show in Knoxville, March of 98. I knew he was there and had met him. Both of us were on the show and got to talking. Me, him and Robby Turner got to hanging around together, just kind of goofing off. Johnny and I decided that we were going to play on one another’s set on the show. At the time, I agreed to do that. I thought, "My gosh, what have I got myself into here." Cause I knew he was a lot better player. I was scared to death that I wouldn’t know his songs. It came off really good. It was about a month or so before we talked again, We were married the following January.

Gib: Kind of a whirlwind thing.

Joan: It kind of was. That’s exactly what Johnny said, "Whirlwind."

Gib: Johnny, after cutting every rug in Nashville, you’re on your way to Dallas.

Johnny: Actually, I’ve already relocated. I left Nashville the end of September. A little over a year ago, I joined up with MSA Guitar Company as a customer service rep with the intent of some point going down there working in the factory. That just got pushed forward, and I’m now working full-time in the factory at MSA building guitars.

Gib: You’re playing with Ray Price. That might take some precedence over MSA factory work, doesn’t it?

Johnny: It’s a dream come true for me to play with Ray. I’m just starting that job. But, MSA comes first. That’s my job; that’s what I moved to Texas to do, build those guitars. I was playing quite a bit before the Ray Price gig came along. I got a call from Ray’s road manager and said Ray was looking for a new steel player; somebody that lived in Texas. So it was great for me and seems to be working for him.

Gib: Yet, another marriage made in heaven. Ray Price has got to rank at the top of everyone’s wish list.

Johnny: I have been a very blessed man. I’ve had the opportunity to play for Ernest Tubb, Mel Tillis; just completed three years with Connie Smith. I could sit here and go on all-day who I’ve had the chance to play for. I played for Cal Smith for four years and many others. But this is really the icing on the cake. I will venture to say this will be my last road job. I thought Connie had been my last road job. I told Joan there were two other people that could get me back on the road, Ray Price or George Jones. It don’t have to be both, either one. Ray got it done.

Gib: Jack Greene, Johnny Russell, Jennie Seely. Joan, tell us about some of the other great names you’ve been playing with.

Joan: I got to work with Del Reeves and Darrell McCall. I’ve got to work with the Texas Playboys a couple years in a row at the Western Swing Festival. That was a lot of fun.

Gib: Don’t forget the NTSGA Superjams. I’ve heard you a number of times there along with all the other greats.

Joan: Those are a lot of fun. I enjoy getting to do those.

Gib: Johnny, what a great gig you had with Connie Smith! I heard you with Connie at Renfro Valley. What a great show!

Johnny: Connie is great!. She is absolutely the best female country singer I have ever heard. It was the most musically rewarding job that I have ever had. She was just a joy to play for. She recognizes how much steel guitar is a part of her and her sound. It doesn’t matter who is playing for her; that recognition is given appropriately.

Gib: Tell us about Ernest Tubb.

Johnny: I worked with Ernest from 1979 to 1981, which were great learning years for me. I really enjoyed working for Ernest. When some of the old Troubadours get together from time to time, we always say, " if Pops comes back." Lot of the guys called him the "old man." I never liked calling him the old man; I had too much respect. I liked calling him Pops. But if Ernest were to walk in the room right now and say, "Boys, let’s get on the bus and go do it again," I haven’t had anybody yet say they wouldn’t. The only question they asked is, "What time does the bus leave?"

Gib: There’s some great memories on those old bus trips. You probably have a lot of stories you can’t even tell.

Johnny: I have some I don’t dare tell. I don’t want to bust any bubbles. He was a wonderful human being, and I learned a lot from him. I was actually offered the job 5 or 6 years earlier, before Lynn Owlsey took the job, when Don Helms left. I turned it down cause I didn’t think I was good enough to be a Texas Troubadour. When it came along again, I said, "I don’t care if I’m good enough or not, I’m going to take it." I wish I had taken it the first time because I would have had that time to learn so much more from Ernest.

Gib: If you were telling someone how to start learning steel guitar today, how would you have them start out?

Johnny: I don’t want to sound negative. I would tell them to go dig out the old records because steel players got to play on the old records. This is no reflection on the player, but they don’t get to play anymore on the new records. I really don’t think it’s the play. I think it’s the producers that don’t want to hear a steel sound like a steel is suppose to sound like. I don’t think it’s cause they don’t want to, but I think they don’t know what it’s suppose to sound like. A guy starting out playing in this day and time, if he goes by what he hears on the radio, it won’t take him long to learn how to play. In six months, he could probably have any road job in Nashville. I don’t mean that in a negative way. I mean the steel has been so restricted in the last ten years on records. In the positive light, if a young guy came up to me and said, "I want to learn how to play steel. What do I need to listen to?" I’m going to tell him to go get him some Ray Price, Carl Smith, Connie Smith , Warner Mack and Loretta Lynn records. Those are the ones I learned how to play by.

Gib: Joan, how did you get started with the steel guitar?

Joan: I used to work for a guy that played steel. I’m from Missouri originally, a little town called Troy, Missouri. It’s about fifty miles west of St. Louis. It’s a real small town. This man I learned from named Bob Delaloye had a music store on main street in Troy. He handled guitars, steels, all kind of instruments. At that time, albums and 45’s we would special order. I worked there changing strings, tuning guitars that people would bring in and working the counter. Bob played steel and guitar. Him and my dad played music together for several years. I was about 18 years old or so, and I used to go work at the store. There was a little place across the street, a bar or tavern, that most all the local guys hungout at. Usually Friday and Saturday Bob had to go play over there. About 4 o’clock on Friday and Saturday afternoon he would get his guitar out and tinker around with it in the back of the store. We had several steels and amps, and I was around that. I played a little bass at the time with my dad’s band. There were a lot of bass players around and not very many steel players. I remember one afternoon when no one else was in the store, and I had all my work caught up. I went in the back and said, "What is that? How does that work?" He said, "Sit down, and I’ll show you." That did it! He’d show me something, of course he had all the Jimmy Day, Emmons’s albums and Lloyd’s albums. We’d sit and listen to something and try to figure it out. He’d show me something, and he’d say, "Play me what I showed you yesterday." I learned from there.

Gib: You’re one of the lucky ones who had someone by you when you had a question.

Joan: He was very patient and showed me the right way and wrong way. I went to Scotty’s convention in 1977. Of course, Curly was there. Maurice was there, back when all the really big guys were there. Boy, that did it. I was hooked forever.

Gib: Johnny, you told me the first time you heard a steel guitar; it was Hal Rugg.

Johnny: It wasn’t a Loretta Lynn record the first time I ever heard steel that I remember. It was actually a local disc jockey in my hometown of Williamson, West Virginia. He had come to Nashville and did a record. Dallas Frazier wrote and produced it. His name was Jimmy Wolford. He brought that record back to Williamson, and my dad brought a copy of it home, played it, and I heard this sound that I had never heard before. My dad had bought me a regular guitar, and I just wasn’t interested. It didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t want to play piano. I had heard this record, and I asked my dad, "What is this sound? I like it. I want to play that." He said, "That’s a steel guitar." The only exposure I had had to a steel guitar was on a local show out of Charleston, West Virginia called the Buddy Starcher show. There was a guy on there that did a takeoff on Cousin Jody with the steel wrapped around his neck and the funny outfit and all. That’s all I had ever heard. I didn’t know what a pedal steel sounded like or even looked like. I heard this record and found out it was Hal Rugg. When we moved to Nashville in 1967, I started listening to steel guitar, and in 1968 or 69 we moved out to Hermitage. I started school and found out I was in the same class with a girl by the name of Terri Rugg. Lo and behold it was Hal’s daughter. I found out Hal was my neighbor, and I pestered him nonstop on a daily basis. Hal helped me a whole lot learning to play.

Gib: Tell us about your first steel?

Johnny: I had this old Kay flattop, which I still have. Dad loosened the strings and put a pencil on the nut to get the strings off the fingerboard. He fashioned me a bar out of something; I don’t remember now what it was, and got me a thumbpick, and that’s how I started.

Gib; No fingerpicks?

Johnny: I don’t think I had fingerpicks until we moved to Nashville.

Gib: When you got a real steel, you had to relearn the string and tuning, right?

Johnny: I went from that six string to my first real steel guitar, a homemade, single neck 8 string with 3 legs, maybe a 4 legger. I still have it somewhere. That was the first electric one, and after that I my mother bought me a 1958 Sho-Bud, D-10, 8&4. She bought that, an amp, case, volume pedal, sack of strings, bar and pick for $450.00.

Gib: At St. Louis one year you played a three neck steel with a E13th neck. Is there any kind of steel you’ve not played?

Johnny: I don’t think so. I went through the 14-string thing in the 70’s. I had a single neck 14-string. I’m getting ready to build myself a single 12 with a Bb6th tuning on it. I’ll try anything once.

Gib: Joan, how do you keep up with a guy like this?

Joan: It’s difficult, but I enjoy seeing all the different things that he’s playing, and I mess around with them at the house, too.

Gib: You guys as a group did some church stuff along with Doug Jernigan.

Johnny: We did that for a long time. We attended a church called Trintiy Fellowship where our pastor was an old musician friend of ours. Joan and Doug played steel all the time, and I played bass. None of us at this time are attending that church. We’ve all gone our separate ways. I’m going to a church in Dallas, and Joan is going to a church close to White House called Hosanna church. She’s playing there in that band. Doug’s going to a church somewhere in Smyrna, closer to where he lives.

Gib: That must have been a great musical church.

Johnny: It was fun. We showed up one morning, and there was me on bass, Joan on steel, and Leon Rhodes on guitar. Needless to say, we played a long time that morning.

Joan: When I was learning steel, Bob introduced me to Doug’s playing, and he just became an idol to me right off the bat. When Bob took me to my first convention, and I got to meet Doug, I was all nervous and excited. You know how we get when we get to meet people we think so much of. Here twenty some years later we end up here at the same church. It took a little time not to get nervous with him being there, but to where it was just normal. After church and everyone had left, we would usually pick one. He would reach around and turn on that back neck and play a hymn, something gospel jazzed up. Every Sunday I’d look forward to that. I’ve always enjoyed playing gospel. When I was in Missouri, the church I attended, I played steel there, too. When I came to Nashville, I was hoping that I would be able to do that, too. When we came to White House, it was amazing how that worked out. We were there a good three years. I was real fortunate and to get to know that every Sunday morning, Doug Jernigan and I would get to play together. A little pointer here, a little pointer there, I miss it already. At least I get to say I got to do that. We’re really good friends now, and I think back twenty-five years ago that I would be sitting beside Doug Jernigan picking, I wouldn’t have believed it.

Gib: You’ve got a great CD out with Johnny. When both of you are playing together, that is some sweet music. What is your favorite song on that CD?

Joan: Thank you. Probably "Prayer Is The Key." We really like that one. Johnny surprised me. We were getting ready to do it, and Johnny said, "I sure would like to sing that." I had only heard him sing a couple times but never formally. He said, "Well, I want to try." He sang a couple songs when he was with Ernest Tubb years ago. I played the first part by myself, and he came in and sang. It really came off nice. I was really proud of that one.

Gib: You guys did a wonderful job on "Angel Band" from your gospel CD.

Joan: We do that one at some of the shows if we are on the set together. We played it a couple years ago at St. Louis, and Eddie Stubbs played the fiddle part. Boy, that was exciting!

Gib: What are some of your other interest?

Joan: I like to do crafts and puzzles, that sort of thing. I like watching funny movies and of course, spending time with him.

Gib: When are you heading for Dallas?

Joan: As soon as I can. Naturally, I’m anxious to get down there with him, but I’ve got some things I’m trying to take care of here. I still have my job here, and I’m helping take care of Johnny’s mother and aunt here. They’re elderly, so rather than try and uproot them, I’m trying to take care of her here. As soon as I can, I want to get down there. I like it down there.

Gib: Johnny and Joan, I want to thank you for being with us today.

Johnny: Thanks, Gib; I want to wish everybody in Nashville the best. I had a great 36 years here, but it’s time for something different, and I’m really enjoying myself in Texas.

Joan: Thanks so much!

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