Black Music Matters Festival

Elizabeth Cook - the modern day Loretta LynnPrint article

By Dan MacIntosh, July 2010

Elizabeth Cook is like a modern day Loretta Lynn. She sings and writes as frankly about sex (with songs like Yes to Booty), as Lynn did with "The Pill. Now, on her fifth album, "Welder," which was produced by a true music business hit man, Don Was, Cook has fun with stereotypes (El Camino), yet gets deadly serious and personal about the subject of addiction on Heroin Addict Sister.

But even though she's as cute as Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, she doesn't yet sell out huge stadiums. Yet for those that like their musical truth to sting just a little bit, Cook continues to cook up some mighty spicy fare.

"What I write – I think – just tends to be a little too quirky and uncomfortable for the white noise music that a lot of advertisers prefer," Cook explains. "I'm okay with that. I don't think I'd be very good at it. I just do what I do. It's sort of how it is."

"I was sitting in a park in East Nashville and realized there were a lot of people out there sort of cruising around, checking each other out and stuff," she recalls, describing the inspiration for El Camino.

"It really surprised me that that was going on. It was a creepy scene, with a lot of funky cars and stuff and I just started with that first line ["I know this guy, he's all wrong for me"] and it all came exactly like in a record." The song includes the line, "Right now my hands are in his mullet."

At first glance, it's hard to believe there is a song like Heroin Addict Sister on the same album as El Camino or Yes to Booty, for that matter. But, as Cook explains it, she writes songs in an entirely different space than where she lives her life. To some degree, there is a bit of detachment that takes place – specifically with the song Heroin Addict Sister.

Elizabeth Cook performs Heroin Addict Sister on Imus

"The writing of the song and processing the emotion of the song, is two different compartments," she elaborates. "Processing that emotion and the sentiment is difficult, but when I'm writing the song, that's not what I'm doing. I'm writing the song. I'm sort of recognizing something that I've already been through; maybe I'm going through it at the moment."

"But the writing part is a different part of the process. So, the writing was not hard. I probably wrote pretty manically about six pages of lyrics, front and back. The most challenging part about making it into a song was probably the arranging and combing through what I had and making a song out of it. It started to form as I was writing it, but then I had a lot more lyrics than I could put in a song, so that was the most work involved in doing it."

One reason why so much of Cook's music sounds like it could have come from an old honky-tonk jukebox - one that hasn't been updated with new records for decades - is because she has a near-encyclopedic knowledge of country music. This is why a song like Blackland Farmer doesn't sound as out of place on Cook's album as it would, say, on a lot of slick music produced in Nashville today.

"It was sort of part of the jukebox of some period of my life, when I was signed to a publishing deal down on Music Row," Cook remembers. "The people that I worked with…we partied pretty hard and stayed up a lot at night, all night and listened to a lot of old records; a lot of stuff on vinyl. And one of things that we had in that publishing catalogue was a Frankie Miller record. And we loved playing that song. And there was almost always at some point during the night the needle got dropped on that song. So I knew it. I would have never thought it was something I wanted to cover, but I started singing it one day, and it felt good. So I thought it might be interesting to record it."

It may surprise some folks when they discover the music Cook gravitates toward these days. It's almost as though she's mastered country music, having grown up on it in Florida, and she now needs new and less familiar sounds and styles to stimulate her and hold her attention. So, does she listen to a lot of old country music, as she did back during those long nights on Music Row?

"I don't seek it out anymore because I know it," she admits. "I'm interested in a lot of…I went and saw Courtney Love last night. I like a lot of hip-hop. I like a lot of garage rock. These are much more exotic to me, and I didn't have any of my older siblings very much around. I was so much younger than the next one up that turned me onto a lot of music, like so many other people…I think that was their experience. I just heard my mom and dad's country band. I know a lot of that music. I love it. Obviously, it's a visceral part of who I am. But as a music lover, and just to sort of rely on the art form as part of my life, I'm interested…I'm interested in all artists that seem truly connected to their experience and communicating their experience through their music; that have a very direct, visceral connection. Which Courtney Love has. Which Eminem has. That's what excites me."

Perhaps Cook can relate to Love's music because she too has had her share of trials and tribulations. The "Welder" CD artwork contains the statement: "I have melted and reformed." This makes sense because Cook dedicated the album to her octogenarian father, who is a retired welder. But it also has a deep emotional meaning, too.

"I went through a rough few years and sort of got pretty worn down to the core on some things," she explains. "I was a child of an alcoholic. It was a crazy, somewhat dysfunctional family, I'm sure. I was pretty shielded from tragedy most of my life, and I had some heavy things happen in a relatively short period of time. And I had to pull it back together. And it was a new day, it was a new chapter. I like to leave the interpretation up to you guys."

Granted, country music doesn't need artists that act up like Love. But creatively speaking, Cook is convinced that country music can certainly use a little of Love's devil-may-care spirit at times. Too often, country music fans settle for less, when they could have so much more.

"There are people that want the Prozac country," Cook states. "They want things that are light or things that are cliché in sentiment. It's like if they have any weight, it's cliché weight. It's about how patriotic you are; that you love grandma. It doesn't ring true for me; not true enough. I'm bored with it. And I think it sells a lot of people short. It's a shame they can't sell advertising around music that's a little more poignant."

"On the other hand, maybe that's what some people want when they get in their car to go to the job they don't want to go to. Maybe they just want to hear something easy; something that doesn't move them one way or the other. Just something to block out whatever they don't want to deal with. And that's not my approach to music. That's not what interests me about music. That's not saying one way's wrong or right, it's just different."