Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
“Ask anyone who is a local, ‘Do you know Earl Cowart?’ And they will say, ‘I absolutely know Earl Cowart!’” Wendy Corbin, one of Cowart’s two daughters, flipped through a scrapbook and shared her father’s story while sitting outside Life’s Bounty Cafe on Main Street in Franklin. She said that he has contributed so much in terms of music to the community, but Franklin has paid him back in kind. “The people here have supported and encouraged daddy all these years so that he could do what he loved: play music.”
Last March, Cowart, who turns 75 in October, suffered a severe stroke that left him unable to walk or talk. However, when there is a familiar song played, he sings along. “We were told that the part of his brain that stores speech is different from the part of the brain that stores memory,” said Corbin. “That’s why he can sing but he can’t talk.”
Corbin, who is customer service
manager at Ingles on Hwy. 441, said her father’s illustrious career in bluegrass and country music took him to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., and throughout the United States and Europe. Born into a family dating back many generations in Macon County, Cowart began singing in church at age five. He learned to play the fiddle, guitar, and bass, primarily, but Corbin said he could play “pretty much anything” set before him. He toured all over the East Coast until his career halted temporarily while he served in the U.S. Army during the 1960s. When he completed his service, he formed a band called Wild Country.
During his music career, Cowart’s face appeared on at least a dozen album covers, and he performed with such music greats as Merle Haggard, Gene Watson, Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, David Holt, Doc Watson, and more. He also performed and toured with Marc Pruett, who currently plays banjo with Balsam Range. In 1976, Cowart and his Wild Country band were chosen by the U.S. State Department to represent country music in a cultural exchange initiative in Poland.
When Gold City opened, it featured music and cowboy entertainment. “At the opening and other times, daddy sang, but he also acted as a cowboy,” said Corbin. “His gunfighter cowboy name was Snake Harden.”
Cowart’s last album, “Cowart and Friends,” focused on gospel songs. Corbin hopes to get copies recorded of all his albums and make them available through the Macon County Public Library.
In between performing professionally, Cowart worked as an auctioneer and owned and operated local businesses. “Franklin was always his home base when he wasn’t traveling,” said Corbin. “He kept his money and his pride right here in his hometown.”
Corbin’s mother, Nellie, who married her father in 1963, “worked a steady job for 35 years at Belden Corporation [which was a factory that made wire, cable, and cord products; when it closed it became the Whistle Stop Mall for many years.] She worked full time so daddy was always able to do his music. She stood by him.”
Corbin sang with her father often, especially when he performed locally such as at Franklin’s Pickin’ on the Square. His son, Earl Cowart Jr., 42, was often on stage as a young boy and is now a graphic designer at Signs Express. Corbin’s older sister, Loretta, was not as interested in performing and playing music, but she currently helps their mother care for their father – and she makes sure Cowart has plenty of music to enjoy while he is bedridden.
G.W. Wiley, Cowart’s former manager, visits Cowart regularly and sings with him. “He checks on daddy and plays for him, and they sing,” says Corbin. “Up until six months ago, when my daddy was still performing, G.W. was still his manager.”
Cowart may not be on “The Grand Tour,” which was a favorite George Jones song, but he is still enjoying the music that has defined his entire life.