Piedmont Profile: Retired deputy Jeff McCorkle finds more time for his gospel bluegrass

  • Posted: Monday, April 22, 2013 12:28 a.m.
    UPDATED: Monday, April 22, 2013 12:30 a.m.
Retired Rowan County Deputy Jeff McCorkle has been enjoying his time performing in the bluegrass gospel band Strings of Victory. McCorkle has a freestanding practice studio built like an old country store at his home where band members gather for practices.
Retired Rowan County Deputy Jeff McCorkle has been enjoying his time performing in the bluegrass gospel band Strings of Victory. McCorkle has a freestanding practice studio built like an old country store at his home where band members gather for practices.

CHINA GROVE — Jeff McCorkle’s personality — he’s shy, self-deprecating and humble — runs counter to his fairly loud passions.

He recently retired from almost 30 years in law enforcement. There’s a 1991 news photograph on the wall of his backyard general store showing a bullet hole in the window of his Rowan County Sheriff’s patrol car.

McCorkle was in the car when a suspect shot at him.

Many of the other things in his custom-made getaway — he dubbed it the “Five and String General Store” — reflect his love for antiques and reproductions, but more importantly, gospel bluegrass music.

Inside the store or on its wide front porch is where the music takes shape.

No one who knew McCorkle as a quiet deputy sheriff could ever imagine him in front of a crowd, harmonizing and playing banjo with his buddies in the Strings of Victory quartet.

Karen McCorkle, Jeff’s wife of 31 years, says “when he got the job at the Sheriff’s Department, I could not imagine him having to knock on someone’s door and actually talk to them.”

“If you’d have told me years ago that he’d stand up in front of people and talk and sing,” she adds, “I’d have laughed and laughed and never believed it.”

Donnie Miller, the quartet’s upright bass player, often talks about Jeff’s shyness when they first met. “Karen would always go to talking, and Jeff wouldn’t say anything,” Miller says.

“Now he actually does the majority of our speaking for us — the talking and introductions.”

Jeff McCorkle, 50, can trace his love for gospel bluegrass — music with meaning, he says — back to the Statler Brothers, once the backing vocal group for Johnny Cash. In fact, he and Karen named their son Statler.

“I just gravitated toward it — I don’t know why,” he says.

But McCorkle acts as though he can hardly play his guitars and banjos — he can — or barely carry a tune singing.

“I sing because somebody has to,” he says, “but I’m not very good. I do some lead, but I usually find a place to fit in somewhere else.”

• • •

McCorkle would rather talk about the store. In 2010, contractor Byron Brush built it to McCorkle’s specifications, which kept expanding as the project went along.

McCorkle ended up with a 24- by 24-foot building with two picture windows in front and a recessed front-door entrance, as most general stores featured.

The front porch is wide enough to hold comfortably a band or quartet. The outside also has plenty of reproduction commercial signs of older days, advertising things such as Blue Grass Hardware and Dr. Barker’s Horse Liniment.

There’s a nice Cheerwine bench on the porch, too.

McCorkle says the “Five and String” name is a play on Five and Dime. He notes there are five strings to his favorite instrument — the banjo. He laughs at all the suggestions he received for the store’s name, many of which incorporated his nickname, “Jam.”

(His initials are J.A.M.)

“Everybody wanted to tell me what to call it,” he says, shuddering at some of the nominations.

• • •

The general store sits in the same place where the McCorkles once had a mobile home for rent. It came time to replace a heat pump, which was going to cost more than the mobile home was worth, so the idea for the general store took root.

McCorkle reasoned correctly it would be a much better place than the trailer for the Strings of Victory quartet to practice.

“I’m tickled with it,” he says.

The inside is a study in wood, from the handsome bead paneling to the hardwood floors. McCorkle has installed a reproduction wood stove in one corner for heat.

Just inside the door he has an old display case and a cash register he bought at a flea market in Yadkinville. Nearby is a barber’s chair McCorkle rescued and restored — and a couple of gum ball machines. Elsewhere are the tools of music, including several banjos and guitars in cases or on display and a washtub bass he made himself.

Near the back door, he has set up a card table with all the things needed for coffee breaks.

“We should get Eight O’Clock Coffee to sponsor us,” he says.

• • •

Though he had been playing the banjo for some 20 years, McCorkle decided to take it more seriously when he, Miller and Tommy Young founded The Singing Deacons in 2004. Their collaboration grew out of singing and playing together at Grace Bible Church in Rockwell.

McCorkle says he improved on the banjo to a point, until realizing he needed lessons from a professional.

“I had been taking some shortcuts you weren’t supposed to be taking,” he explains.

It turns out his instructor was 25, and Jeff was 45.

“It was humbling,” McCorkle says of the three years of lessons.

Now he plays with greater authority, though he won’t tell you that exactly. “I usually stick to the older, slower things,” McCorkle says. I’m not a very good fast player. You don’t have to go far to find a better banjo player.”

Miller disagrees. “I’m surprised he’s still with our group — he’s an extremely good banjo player,” he says.

McCorkle also claims he’s not a loud picker, so he invested in a Sullivan banjo, which cost more than his first car. It’s forgiving and amplifies his sound, McCorkle says.

The Strings of Victory quartet practices in The Five and String General Store, not far from the intersection of Weaver and Patterson roads, every Thursday night.

Comprised of McCorkle, Miller, Aaron Efird and Hubert Furr, the quartet has performed at venues in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Many times, church congregations will invite them.

“There are thousands of small churches,” McCorkle says. “I’d like to hit every one of them.”

• • •

As a kid, growing up in Landis, McCorkle endured eight years of piano lessons. “I could have quit,” he says, “but for some reason I kept on going.”

Thanks to the piano lessons, he can read a little bit of music. “If I had to, I could sit down and figure it out,” he says.

McCorkle says a neighbor, a cotton mill worker who played with a band at the New Country Sound, introduced him to the guitar and showed him a few things when he was young. “I wish I could go back and pay more attention,” McCorkle says.

Later a friend sold him a Bicentennial-detailed banjo for $50 and taught him three or four songs. He still has that banjo.

After high school, McCorkle went to work for the Salisbury Fire Department for two years, then moved over to a fledgling Rowan County Emergency Medical Service for a year.

After taking Basic Law Enforcement classes, he landed a job as a Rowan County Sheriff’s deputy in 1986.

The first 12 years he patrolled the Enochville area, which was familiar territory and included, in McCorkle’s book, some of the best people on the planet. The thing about Enochville, he says, is there’s no easy way to get there from somewhere else.

So if residents listening to police scanners heard he was calling for assistance, they might show up as backup until other deputies could arrive. “It was pretty neat working over there,” McCorkle says. “It was like my own little town.”

• • •

For a time, back in his patrol days, McCorkle worked with Rory Collins, today’s police chief in Salisbury.

When Sheriff Bob Martin first hired Collins, he worked as a courtroom bailiff for three months, and he took note when McCorkle testified in the prosecution of his cases.

“I remember being so very impressed with how prepared Jeff always was and how he always seemed to have it all together,” Collins says. “... Jeff never lost a case while I was observing him during that time. I recall telling myself if I am ever fortunate enough to get an assignment as a patrol deputy, I wanted to carry myself just as Jeff did and have the same style and unquestioned integrity.”

Collins got his wish. From 1990-95, they worked together as part of the “A” Team of patrol officers, and Collins covered Zone 4, just east of McCorkle’s Enochville section. All of the A Team deputies became close friends and often spent time together outside of work.

Collins and his wife were attending the same churches as McCorkle’s family. Off duty, Collins and McCorkle also liked to go camping, fishing and shooting.

They tinkered a lot with their patrol cars and, unlike most deputies, they enjoyed working traffic and stopping cars that broke traffic laws.

Collins says McCorkle was a major influence on his life.

“There comes a time in many young folks’ lives when they need a positive adult role model by whom they can strive to pattern themselves,” Collins says. “At that point in my personal life, as well as in the beginning of my professional career, Jeff McCorkle filled that need.”

McCorkle later covered multi-agency traffic control over a five- and six-county area, conducting DWI checkpoints. He also became a patrol sergeant and ended up working out of the Sheriff’s Office in Salisbury as the department’s training coordinator.

He retired in 2010 with more than 28 years with the Sheriff’s Office.

“I enjoyed most of it,” McCorkle says. ‘It’s completely different now than when I started.”

• • •

McCorkle also employs his musical talents as part of the orchestra at Central Baptist Church in Kannapolis.

“He’s one of the finest Christian men I know,” Miller says.

In addition, McCorkle helps out and keeps watch on the Price of Freedom Museum, which is close to his house, and he teaches guitar to a couple of students.

Out back, he built a pistol shooting range.

“You can do just so much pistol shooting until that gets old,” he says.

Twice a week, McCorkle drives his mother, Nathalane “Nat” McCorkle, to her water aerobics classes at the YMCA in Kannapolis. His sister, Cynthia Caudill, takes their mom on other days of the week.

Sometimes his daughter, Madison, who’s studying photography at Appalachian State University, sings with McCorkle when she’s home.

Since the general store was built, the family has held what McCorkle likes to call their “Gospel on the Grass” festival. There’s bluegrass on the porch, while friends and family eat hot dogs and spread out on the finely manicured grass McCorkle has slaved over in front of the store.

It’s the stuff of Norman Rockwell paintings, and McCorkle knows it.

“God’s been good to me,” he says.

And it sounds like a song.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

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