Elizabeth Cook – Everyday sunshine
“Times are tough in rock ‘n’ roll.” That’s how it starts, Elizabeth Cook’s closely observed two-minute summation of the current sociological, economic, and aesthetic perils of pursuing a career in music. “Beer can’t be bought, wine can’t be sold.”
She is, of course, right.
She is also a country singer, so hers is generalized, if carefully rooted commentary. To swipe a phrase from the fiddling humorist Mike Cross, every time Elizabeth Cook opens her mouth the grits come out, covered in honey.
So gifted a country singer that she’s been appearing on the Grand Ole Opry off and on for almost seven years now, though she won’t quit her day job.
“A thousand lies are gettin’ told.” A juice harp and a banjo and a fiddle are dancing around in the background on her new record, Balls, and it’s a relentlessly jaunty opening track, pure, sparkling country.
She is not gloating, for she is both of country and of rock. And, anyway, times are tough all over.
Nor does she travel with all those embellishments, just a simple three-piece rock ‘n’ roll band. South By Southwest has booked Elizabeth and the boys — she calls them the Wet Wipes, tonight — into a 9 p.m. slot on Saturday evening at Jovita’s, a $4 cab ride from the Continental Club, which is itself a long walk from most of the action on Sixth Street. There isn’t another familiar name on the bill.
The place is neither empty nor full. Fun is being had; tequila is, in fact, being bought and sold. (Not, it should be pointed out, to the folks onstage.) About halfway through the set she turns to her guitar player and says, “Tim Carroll, play us a train song.” She heads stage right, pulls out of her cowboy boots, and her feet might well hurt (this is a woman who knows more than a thing or two about shoes), except that she puts on some well-worn flats and floats back to center stage, clogging with skill and abandon, and never mind the accounting degree.
What is enough? When is there enough stuff in your house? How many people have to acknowledge your gifts before it is possible even for you to believe in them, much less to enjoy them? Isn’t the enormous pleasure — the great dumb luck — of simply being allowed to do the work you were meant to do sufficient?
Not often enough.
Maybe the American Dream is inherently self-destructive because it demands that you accept only the most outlandish definitions of success, because it is unattainable, because it is never enough. Because there is only one Bill Gates and Sam Walton’s kids seem not to have understood their father. Because Garth Brooks always looks more hunted than happy.
Or maybe, to borrow another line — from the V-Roys — it’s a lie we can believe.
“I have two goals,” Elizabeth Cook says earlier that Saturday. “One is just to be in the van with the guys on the way to a gig or on the way back, or playing, that’s one goal, which I’m achieving. And the other one is, yeah, gosh, to have a baby and a nice house and 300-count cotton sheets and good coffee. Who doesn’t want that? So, yeah, you want it all, you know?
“We get into deep discussions sometimes — not often, but every once in a while — about the business, and what we’re struggling for, and…then I looked around at the guys, and our chips and salsa, and our hibiscus margaritas, and I said, ‘Struggling? Who’s struggling? This is great! This is it. This is it.’
“I mean, yeah, we could be in a Prevost [tour bus] maybe instead of BR549’s old van, but, I’m great. Lovin’ it. Bills are paid. Barely, but they’re paid, and I’ve got a new record in the can, a great marriage, enjoy my music more and more…it’s fantastic.”
Virtually every time Elizabeth Cook’s name appears in print, it is attached to two biographical quirks: Her father is a convicted bootlegger, and she once worked for the accounting firm Price Waterhouse. And, yes, both details are part of the fierce pride behind the everyday sunshine of her smile, but there is a tendency to render the story as if she were a supporting character in one of those tawdry Erskine Caldwell novels.