Elizabeth Cook – You don’t have to call her darlin’
“Just because I’m blonde, don’t think I’m dumb
‘Cause this dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool.”
Dolly Parton sang those lines on “Dumb Blonde”, her debut single for Fred Foster’s old Monument label, back in 1967. Written by the great Curly Putman, the song casts Dolly as a fed-up woman confronting her two-timing man not so much for running around on her as for thinking he could get away with lying to her just because she’s blonde — and a woman.
Given how tough it was to break into Music Row’s boys club in the ’60s, Dolly’s gritty performance suggested another scenario as well: It reverberated with the authority of a woman who’d contended with more than her share of patronizing male record execs.
Elizabeth Cook can relate. In fact, it was after sitting through yet another fruitless meeting with record men on Music Row that the Florida native wrote “Dolly”, a tribute to Ms. Parton and a winking but serious update of “Dumb Blonde” that appears on Cook’s new album, Hey Y’all.
“We want to hear more songs,” the big players say
They hook me up with a writer in his heyday
Dolly, did you go through this?
He let me know he thought I was a sight
And how much he’d love to co-write
Oh Dolly, did you go through this?
Cook delivers this verse in a silvery drawl akin to Parton’s as a chugging, boom-chuck rhythm propels her to the chorus:
Oh Dolly, Oh Dolly
What does it take?
I feel like I’ll blow the deal
With one little mistake
I can charm ’em, but darn ’em
Music’s all I’ll make
And every song’s a hit or miss
Oh, Dolly did you go through this?
“I’d go into meetings with these record label people and it seemed like, almost deliberately sometimes, I’d self-destruct,” Cook recalls. She’s dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, sitting in the back room of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville on a steamy afternoon in mid-July.
“I’d wear the weirdest thing I could find,” Cook continues. “I’d carry my guitar in there by the neck and play the strangest song I could think of. I think I was just trying, desperately, to hang on to who I was. I think Dolly has that sort of self-definition. When I came home from a label meeting after another rejection, I just started wondering if it was like this 30 years ago.
“I think sometimes the industry, with videos being such a big deal now, they see you, and if you’re under one hundred-thirty pounds and blonde or whatever, they think, ‘Oh yeah, we can do something with you. We can work with you.’ But if you actually have something musically that you want to say and do, that’s a danger; you kind of have to nip that. Yet, I’m a woman and I want to feel pretty. I want to dress up and be sexy, pretty, and all those things too. So it’s a delicate balance. Some people say that being good-looking can hurt you as much as it can help you.”
Hey Y’all, which was came out on Warner Bros. Nashville in late August, is nothing if not an exercise in self-definition. Cook wrote or co-wrote all but one of the album’s twelve songs, five of them reprised from an earlier self-released CD she sold at shows, and by mail through Miles Of Music. She recorded the album the way she wanted to — live, with the musicians gathered in a circle — and with pickers of her choosing. (The players range from Cook’s fiance, alt-country singer-songwriter Tim Carroll, to first-call Nashville session pros such as Kenny Malone and Dan Dugmore.) Cook also hired the album’s producer, Richard Dodd, a Nashville outsider whose credits include work with Tom Petty, Sheryl Crow, Steve Earle and Wilco.
“I did not want to go with someone who has their assembly line of acts that they produce,” Cook says. The crisp, punchy sound she and Dodd achieved on Hey Y’all — something of a rockified update of countrypolitan — attests to the wisdom of that decision.
“I had songs that were special to me and I wanted to have someone who would treat them special,” Cook explains. “When I met Richard, he said, ‘I don’t know much about country music,’ and I said, ‘I’ll take care of that part. I just want you to help me get good sound to tape and help me with arrangements.'”
Even more striking, in terms of self-definition, is the way Cook exults in her rural, southern, working-class roots on the record, a perspective that’s all but vanished from commercial country music. Hey Y’all includes sentimental paeans to mother (“Mama, You Wanted To Be A Singer, Too”) and home (“Ocala”), and a pew-rockin’ southern gospel number (“God’s Got A Plan”). A guest recitation by Opry star Bill Anderson in “Don’t Bother Me” was written by Cook’s father.
None of it, not even Cook’s fetching, slightly nasal drawl (reminiscent at times of a down-home Kelly Willis) or the album’s “aw shucks” title, is put-on; it’s all as smart, sincere, and country as Cook is herself. Indeed, her story would have been all the fodder Steve Goodman needed to write “You Never Even Call Me By My Name”, his ode to the perfect country song.