he urge to assume singer-songwriter Elizabeth Cook's image was cooked up by some Nashville record executive is strong, for she possesses the traits of the archetypal Country Singer.
Her voice, for starters, carries the unmistakable honey twang of the Deep South. By four, she had performed a song. By eight, she had released the first of three singles, and by nine, she found herself in cowgirl fringe, fronting a honky-tonk band named Southern Breeze.
To date, Cook has performed on the Grand Ole Opry 100 times, and this summer marks the release of her debut "Hey Y'all" on Warner. The 12-song collection - all but one are originals - eschews the crossover poppiness of Shania and Faith for a classic country sound that harks back to the prairie-skirt heyday of Dolly and Emmylou.
Cook's family background similarly indulges the notion of "country" in popular imagination. Her father was raised a Georgia sharecropper, learned to play acoustic guitar and later was arrested for running moonshine in cahoots with organized crime. While serving time, he learned to play bass and performed with the prison band.
Cook's mother grew up outside Charleston, West Virginia, listening to T. Texas Tyler and Cowboy Copas. "She's a hillbilly," says Cook.
Her mother raised six kids (half-siblings of Cook's), performed on AM radio shows, and, as Cook plainly states in her song "Mama, You Wanted to Be a Singer, Too," had high musical aspirations.
Cook's parents met and married when they were both in their forties. They settled in Wildwood, Fla., not Ocala, as most would assume after hearing Cook's song of the same name. "I grew up about 30 minutes south of there (Ocala), but 'Ocala' sings better than 'Wildwood,'" she admits.
When asked whether she wanted to follow in her musical parents' footsteps, Cook laughs and says, "I didn't have a choice."
By the time she was two, her mother had taught her melodies, and two years later Cook learned her first whole song. "I don't think it was an ordinary childhood," Cook says. "I was in bars and honky tonks at a very young age."
There, she and Southern Breeze performed originals penned by her mother.
But a passion for country didn't immediately take, and the country fairy tale was put on hold when Cook reached adolescence. When she got to middle school, Cook says she and her friend "wanted to be cheerleaders in the worst way," an activity that precluded her weekend honky-tonk performances.
Distancing herself from performing, however, Cook "wanted to find my identity instead of having the identity my mother made for me. I wanted a nice car and a sense of normalcy."
Cook, a hardworking, exemplary student, saw higher education as a more direct and reliable path to success than performance would have been. "I knew how to get into college, but I didn't know how to be a country star," she explains.
The family moved to Georgia when Cook was 16, and after graduation, Cook went on to attend Georgia Southern University, where, straying ever farther from the country music myth of falling-off-the-turnip-truck-and-landing-on-the-Opry, she studied accounting and computer information systems.
The hard science of her subjects was so dry and mathematical, however, that it led Cook to songwriting while she was in college: "It made me start writing songs to counter what I was doing with the rest of my time...At least that's what my shrink tells me," she jokes.
Ultimately, Cook found herself in Nashville, not with a guitar and a sheaf of songs, but with a briefcase in tow. She took the best job offer she got after college graduation and "it happened to be in Nashville," with Price Waterhouse, she says.
Which isn't to say she completely ignored that she resided in Music City. "I was excited - 'I get to go to Nashville and live there, and maybe then I'll figure it (making it as a country singer) out,'" Cook remembers thinking before moving.
She worked and traveled so much, however, that "there was no time" to pursue music, "whether I wanted to or not," Cook says. "I never had a day off for three months straight."
Tired of the grueling hours she worked, Cooks says that when an acquaintance with connections to Sis 'N Bro Music set up a meeting for her at the publishing company, she jumped at the opportunity to be a full-time songwriter, despite the sacrifices inherent in that line of work. "Within six weeks, I left Price Waterhouse╔(and) moved into an empty office at the publishing company," says Cook. "There was a shower across the hall."
Cook kept her spartan living arrangements "off and on for about two years," she says. She continued to write for Sis 'N Bro, where, "luckily," she had "just enough going on" to get her contract renewed each year.
Eventually, Jeff Gordon, who also worked there, suggested Cook cut demos of her songs, which he produced. Cook eventually had an album's worth, so she released an independent, self-titled collection, many of which ended up on "Hey Y'all." That first collection was "very very much a grassroots effort," says Cook, who adds that she "went to Kinko's" to print her cd covers.
In the midst of shopping her demos around, Cook met Pete Fisher, a manger at the Opry, at an industry Christmas party, "and ended up crashin' a lunch" where he was in attendance, she says.
These meetings led to her first invitation to perform on the Opry. Virtually unknown then, Cook says she "came along and fit the bill at the right time," as the Opry was shopping around for unsigned talent. Cook believes the Opry, in showcasing new talent, is "wanting to re-gain some of the power╔that they used to have," by breaking new acts.
"My goal when I went on (the Opry) that very first time was to see if I could get asked back," Cook says. This made her more interested in pleasing the audience than in pushing her new material, and so she sang "Makin' Believe" with the house band. Through continuing to make herself available and filling in for cancellations, Cook did get asked back to the Opry - 99 times and counting.
Cook begins each performance by asking the audience, "Are y'all ready for some country music?" Truly, country music is what Cook delivers, whether singing a ballad or an homage to her mother or asking Dolly Parton the musical question, "Dolly, did you go through this?" when she reflects on the difficulties of being a savvy woman in the world of country music.
"When music comes from a very raw and real place, that's what people want to hear," says Cook, and for her, that "real place" is country.