This article appears in the July issue of 400 Life.
A few days a year, Wendell Cox does his best to blend in. Chances are he’ll be at Good ol’ Days Bar and Grill near downtown Cumming on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Cox will pull his shoulder-length hair back under a baseball cap and wear dark sunglasses as he plays his acoustic guitar along with two old buddies.
They’ll perform a set list of familiar country and rock — Aerosmith, Merle Haggard, etc. But eventually, a regular will spread the word about Cox’s real line of work and he’ll have to admit it to some curious spectator: Yeah, he’s the longtime lead guitarist for country-music star Travis Tritt.
Their natural assumption is that Cox must be visiting from Nashville.
“Hell no,” Cox said, “I live right here.”
But he must have moved to Forsyth County, right?
“I’m like, ‘No, born and raised,’” Cox said. “It just blows their minds.”
For almost 32 years, Cox has played alongside Tritt, reaching the highest of highs in the music industry. He’s been there for the platinum records and the sold-out headlining tours, traveling from coast to coast — and Canada, too — to perform to adoring crowds.
Cox grew up in a musical family. His parents were older — his dad was born in 1926, his mom in 1930 — which placed him in a disparate musical environment. Along with his parents’ musical tastes, Cox had an older brother who played bluegrass and a sister who listened to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Cox absorbed those influences, but he was most captured by the records he heard his other brother playing — Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ted Nugent, Atlanta Rhythm Section.
When Cox went to learn to play the guitar at around 14 years old, he already felt acquainted with the instrument. Within a few weeks, Cox’s older brother, who had a band, invited him to play rhythm for a gig. Cox “took to it like a duck to water,” he said. They rehearsed in the back of what is now Maria & Friends Dry Cleaners in downtown Cumming and played at dances after Forsyth County High School football games. Within a few years, Cox advanced enough to play lead guitar, and the band played small bars in Hall County, like Blackbeard’s and The Brass Register. Later, the band evolved and started playing Moose Lodges, VFWs and frat parties in Athens.
After Cox graduated from high school in 1984, he got in another band and started to hear about Tritt. Cox’s band didn’t last, but a friend told Cox that Tritt wanted to meet him. Tritt was putting together a band, his friend said, but was struggling to find a guitarist. Cox met Tritt at his home in Marietta. They played a few songs together and felt an instant synergy.
“We just kind of looked at each other, and he was like, ‘OK, there it is; that’s what I’ve been looking for,’” Cox said.
That was February of 1988. By November of 1989, Cox was on his first-ever major tour. The following year, they were on the road 300 days and played 250 shows.
Cox fell into his new frenetic life with relative ease. Being apart from his family was hard; he had recently married and had a daughter. But Cox was undaunted by the travel. “Everything seemed quite natural,” Cox said.
As everything took off, industry people recommended Cox live in Nashville. It’s where they would record albums and catch the bus for tours. It needed to be the new center of his universe, Cox was told.
Cox resisted, and he’s glad he did. It’s allowed him to be near family. His daughter is 30 now, and he has a son, who is 15, as well as three grandchildren. He’s stayed in touch with friends, the ones who knew him growing up in Forsyth County and told him he was “going to do something, one way or the other,” Cox said.
“I still have as much work and things happen for me without having to move myself up there,” he said. “I just really enjoy being able to come home.”
Cox’s schedule has scaled back since the height of Tritt’s popularity. He says they play about 80-90 concerts a year starting in March and cover about 75,000 miles. He’ll leave on a Wednesday or Thursday, play on the weekend and be home on Sunday.
But Cox says he doesn’t tire of going through the same stops year after year. There’s a favorite restaurant or bar at each one, a group of friends to catch up with and smiling faces in the crowd. And he still feels the same drive to perform as he did 32 years ago when he first left Cumming to try to make it in the music world with Tritt.
“It’s like it was when we first started,” Cox said. “It’s the craziest thing. That fire, that passion, has never went away.”
And as long as it keeps going, Cox will keep playing and keep coming back to Cumming — to home.