Coming into their 50th year, the ensemble has performed across the globe, garnering a following as large as it is loyal. And at the center of it is Cook, who started the act from humble beginnings as a teacher. He and members of the community, including his students, would get together on his front porch and sing. There was magic in the collaboration, one which finally took to the stage for the first time those many years ago.
Thousands of performances later, The Inspirations are going as strong as ever. Though Cook recently turned 77 years old, don’t let that number fool you. He’s as active and ready to play as folks half his age. Returning from a weeklong odyssey of shows in Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana, Cook sat down with The Smoky Mountain News, where he spoke of his love of Western North Carolina, why music is important to share with others, and how that incredible feeling he feels every time he gets on stage never seems to waver.
Smoky Mountain News: Where did your life with music begin?
Martin Cook: Well, it was in my family. My father was the singing leader in the community. Singing was one of the things you did in the home. You didn’t have all the different entertainment centers we all have today, so what the people did we’d gather ‘round and sing. A lot of conversation went on in the mountains here in those days. They’d spend a whole day just talkin’ about where they lived and their families. And, we’ve lost a lot about that in our mountain culture. Hardly anyone knows where they’re from anymore.
How did you start participating in music?
I was playing the piano in my home as far back as I could remember. My sister played too, and then she moved to Asheville, so there was nobody to play the piano in church, and that’s how I ended up playing there. And I still go to church there.
You’ve lived a pretty varied life.
I’ve done quite a few things in my life. I’ve done military service, was a park ranger in the Great Smokies, a school teacher at the high school in Bryson City. When I got out of college, I got married to the cute girl next door. She was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen, and when I got back from Korea, we were married. I came to Swain County to teach chemistry and physics. People from the community would come sing at my house, and some of the students from my classes would come over and sing, too. Those students sang longer and worked harder, and that became The Inspirations.
You remember the first show?
It was a May Day program at the Swain County High School in 1964. We just enjoyed it, it was just one of those things, a way of life. We just enjoyed singing and still do. It’s like a heartbeat.
What’s it like these days?
We try to do around 140 shows a year, but that’s about all we can do and still enjoy it. If you go away from home too much you get tired. It’s a calling. You’re helping people. It’s amazing to get those phone calls and letters about how a song made a difference in their lives.
How would you describe gospel music?
Gospel music, at first, is a good gospel message. It has certain rhythm and chord patterns that most people will like, whether they go to church or not. We’ve sung at prisons, legislatures, and bank meetings, all kinds of places. Still the same old songs and people love it. It’s a healing type thing. It’s hard to understand if you haven’t experienced it.
Do you ever reflect on it all, how popular the group became?
We were able to get some great recordings, on Canaan Records, back in the 1960s. We sold a million copies. They were selling our records in Hong Kong, Germany, all around the world. I’m in the Gospel Hall of Fame and Piano Hall of Fame, too. I remember when we’d go on the Gospel Singing Jubilee, we’d come on as a guest. Did it for 12 years. You could see it anywhere in the country, from Philadelphia to Seattle. Four million people would see us on Sunday morning. In 1970, we got on 60 Minutes on CBS, which made all the difference.
Why do you like putting on the festival?
We’ve been doing the festival since 1974. I enjoy seeing the people. They come from all over the U.S. Seeing these people come in, telling me how they live, what they’ve been doing, what they enjoy doing, and their enjoyment of the place here. You’ll hear “Amazing Grace” echo off these hills as you’ve never heard it in your life here.
What’s it like for you when you’re performing onstage?
It’s all about the song and the people. It’s impossible to out-sing the people. How they enjoy it controls how you do. It’s a two-way street. So many people enjoy it that it makes you want to do better.
Want to go?
“Singing In The Smokies” runs from July 4-6 at Inspiration Park in Bryson City. Participating groups include The Inspirations, Kingsmen, Land of the Sky Boys with Ernie Phillips, Squire Parson Trio, Family and Friends with The McKameys, The Greesons, and Dailey & Vincent. Tickets are $20 per person, with children 12 and under free.