Elizabeth Cook: Country Music Unfit for the Opry

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There are two Elizabeth Cooks. There’s the one who performs on the Grand Ole Opry, as she has for more than a decade, singing the straight-up country songs that make up the canon of that venerable establishment. Then there’s the singer-songwriter Elizabeth Cook whose best known lyric is “sometimes it takes balls to be a woman” and whose new album, Welder, includes lyrics about a “heroin addict sister,” a mullet-wearing, El Camino-driving boyfriend, and a “rock and roll man” frequently driven to fisticuffs by “cigarette ashes in a Budweiser can.” The music on Welder careens well outside the bounds of Opryland, shifting from waltzes and bluegrassy numbers to alt-country, pop ballads, and flat-out rockers.

Cook and her band are among five acts that are playing at the Utne Reader-sponsored Americana Music Assocation showcase next week at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas. In a phone conversation from Key West, Florida, she spoke about coming to terms with the Opry playlist, dropping telling details into her songs, and growing up as the daughter of an ex-con and a hillbilly singer:

Keith Goetzman: You grew up in a very musical family in Florida, didn’t you?

Elizabeth Cook: “Yeah, my mom was a hillbilly singer from Charleston, West Virginia–she played mandolin, guitar, and was a songwriter. My daddy was just sort of a novice musician and he ended up playing upright bass in the prison band when he was in jail. So when Daddy got out of jail he met Mama and they started playing little honky-tonks around central Florida. They had me when my mother was 42 and he was 48. I came along late and was sort of born into their little honky-tonk band scenario in central Florida in the ’70s.”

And you performed at an early age, right?

“Yeah. Mama started teaching me country songs when I was starting to talk, about 2 or 3 years old. The first song I sang was a Ronnie Milsap song, “I’m Having Daydreams About Night Things,” completely inappropriate and not cool at all, but my mama just didn’t know. I sang at Mama Jo’s Jamboree in Fruitland Park, Florida, when I was four. There’s a little picture of me from a newspaper clipping. I’m just sort of standing there holding the mike with tights and black patent leather shoes, singing this song. That was my first gig that is documented.”

Did you know from an early age that you wanted to be a professional musician?

“No, I didn’t. It was just something that was part of our livee that we did; I didn’t see any way of making money at it. I did well in school so I went to college–I rebelled against my parents’ wishes. I went to school and I got a degree in accounting and computer information systems at Georgia Southern [University]. I sent out my resume and I got offers to work in Atlanta or Nashville. I thought let me opt for Nashville just in case, and I did, and 18 months into my accounting job I got my first deal to start writing songs down on Music Row. That was a life changer.”

If you hadn’t gotten that deal, do you imagine you’d still be doing something in accounting?

“No, absolutely not. [laughs] I think I’d be selling Avon or something, I don’t know.”

Now you’ve been on the Grand Ole Opry for almost a decade. What has that experience been like?

“It still is very surreal to me, even though it’s comfortable in many ways. I know so many people there now–I have great conversations and hellos and hugs with Opry members. Little Jimmy Dickens–I stood there Friday night in the wings of the Opry House and held his hand. It makes me tear up cause he’s getting on up there. And Jeannie Seely just gave me a vintage dress that she wore on the Opry when she was younger. It’s an amazing experience. It’s like going home. … I feel like there are these little outliers, these odd things, and the Opry is one of those things. It’s so bizarre and wonderful.

“Yet a lot of what I write now I can’t perform on the Opry. It’s like the material is banned–too heavy, too risque, whatever. I can’t perform what I write, so when I go out there, I stick to the country roots stuff that the audience there wants to hear, that I love to do. It’s a great outlet for me to get to go do that. Friday night I sang with Rodney Crowell. We’ve been toying around with doing some duet stuff. We went out there and just did a couple of old country duets and it was so fun.”

Are there sort of unwritten rules about what can be played at the Opry? Or have you asked to play certain material and been rejected?

“Well, I remember when the Balls album came out and we knew that that was going to be the single, I never asked–my sensibilities told me that it would be pushing it, even though CMT is playing the video. But I felt like, mmm, not here probably. And then general management did mention to me that I probably ought to find something else to do off the album, which was fine with me. I’ve got a lot of songs and it was totally fine. You know, they’re an institution, and I respect that. I do my art, I’m very free and I get to do what I want to do on my records–and when I’m at the Opry, I play the Opry. I respect what that is and their audience and what they feel there. I’m OK with that.”

“It took me a while, though. I wasn’t always that way. It was frustrating because I’m sort of developing naturally into what I fancy in my head, to be a singer-songwriter. And I need to do my [own] material. Lord knows and willing, I will be able to do that, but I finally got to a point where it was like, you know what? It’s good to come out here. It feels good to come out here with this band and do some Louvin Brothers, and it’s an opportunity for me to do that.”

Did you face resistance anywhere else about the lyrics to the song “Sometime It Takes Balls to Be a Woman”? Were there traditional country stations that wouldn’t touch it?

“Yeah, like all of them.” [laughs]

Is that true?

“Yeah, pretty much. I think we got some spins on secondary [radio]. There was a thing that happened in the media. I don’t know, but the marketing minds suggest that the Don Imus thing happened right about then, and everybody really reeled things way in. Who knows if that was a factor or not–maybe the song just wasn’t what it needed to be for country radio. I feel pretty disenfranchised by mainstream radio anyway, so it wasn’t any big shocker. Even on Mountain Stage, I did the song but I’ve heard that they bleeped out the word ‘balls.’ [laughs] And there are a couple other more folk-oriented radio shows where I believe that’s been the case. And that’s their prerogative. They let me do what I want to do and then they do what they need to do, so it’s OK.”

I see on your MySpace page that your influences are all over the place, from Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings to the White Stripes and the Beastie Boys. Are you always exploring, listening to new and different music?

“Yeah, I don’t like to listen to the same much. I like all kinds of music. If it’s interesting me and it pulls me in, it can be in any number of kinds of packaging–that’s really secondary to me. I know some people really want a certain sound, a consistent sound, and that doesn’t really do it for me. I’ll listen to my Merle Haggard box set and then I’ll listen to the Hives.”

Your new album is in that same vein. Listening to it, I hear country, I hear pop, I hear echoes of bluegrass, I hear rock and roll. So you’re keeping the sound very diverse …

“Oh, yes, the sounds are. I mean the continuum is my perspective and my voice. And as a songwriter that’s really what the thread is. So that’s the part that I think is important. It might not be for everybody, you know. I’m sure there’ll always be folks who say ‘I’ll make a straight-up record that’s 12 tracks of this sound.’ And maybe I will one day, but that doesn’t interest me. I would get terribly bored.”

I want to ask you about some specific songs on the album. Like “El Camino”: Did you ever have a boyfriend with an El Camino and a mullet?

“No. [laughs] The song is about being seduced by someone inappropriate, someone that you deem as inappropriate for you. I think a lot of girls have probably had that guilty pleasure where they’re like, ‘Man, I would not take this guy home. None of my friends can know.’ It’s sort of your guilty pleasure, you know, of some guy that’s not appropriate.” [giggles]

Well, it sounds like it might be a fun video to make, in any case.

“I hope so. They’re talking about that.”

You’ve got a very direct song titled “Heroin Addict Sister.” Where does that come from?

“I wrote that song by myself. A lot of people struggle with addiction; families have people who self-destruct regardless of what tools they use to do that. When I wrote it, I thought, ‘My God–will I ever do this live?” And I didn’t know, but I found the safest place that I thought I could do it and see how it would go. Like a true litmus test. I was in Washington state in a casino opening for Mel Tillis. The gig was just a complete hole. And I thought, ‘I’m going to do this song tonight and see how it goes.’ I was opening up and it resonated and it felt important to do it. As far as the factual truth and stuff, I don’t want to get into saying any more than what I’ve already said about it.”

I wondered where the album title Welder came from until I heard “Heroin Addict Sister.” There’s a line in that song: “She’s a certified underwater welder.” I assume it’s plucked from that.

“I’m glad you picked up on that. I wrote the bio for the album, and it draws that out a little bit, clarifies that. But, you know, welding is the melting and fusing of things. My daddy was a welder. He got his certificate in jail, and when he got out that’s sort of how our family made their living and we survived. He had his own little business in central Florida called Cook’s Welding. So anyway, it was just part of my life growing up and I thought this album’s an infusion of many things, so I wanted to call it that.”

In your lyrics you’ve got some really vivid imagery. In “El Camino” there’s a line about being “high as a kite on diesel fumes.” Then there’s the “certified underwater welder” line and a mention of “cigarette ashes in a Budweiser can” in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Man.” These are all tiny details that tell us something about a song or the people in the song. Are you drawn to those sorts of details?

“Yeah. Thank you for noticing that. It’s just my style of writing. I think when I’m at my best, I’m an observer of things, and little details like that seem really trite can tell you a whole lot. And in my opinion that’s the kind of writing that I’m interesting in doing. When I read a Larry Brown book or a Lee Smith book, or a Rick Bragg or some of these writers, I see how in a very concise way they can say some little thing and I know exactly what they mean. I know a lot about the scenario with just some tiny detail like that.”

Image by Kristin Barlowe, courtesy of Thirty Tigers.

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