Elizabeth Cook – You don’t have to call her darlin’
Cook’s mother, who grew up in Appalachia, did dream of being a country star; invited by host Sunshine Sue to sing on the Old Dominion Barn Dance (broadcast by WRVA in Richmond, Virginia), she nearly became one, too. Cook’s father, a welder, not only served time in prison for running moonshine, he played bass in the jailhouse band as well. He later gave up whiskey after hearing his daughter sing “Does Daddy Love The Bottle (More Than He Loves Me)”, a song written by Cook’s mother that became the B-side of a single recorded by 8-year-old Elizabeth for the Southern Sound label in 1980. Cook’s parents still live in a single-wide trailer, albeit one that’s much nicer — and sits on a bigger piece of ground (less than an hour’s drive east of Nashville) — than the one in Florida in which Elizabeth, who is now 30, grew up.
“Upper-class white trash” is how Elizabeth, the youngest of 11 kids in a blended family, characterizes the stock from which she comes. “We weren’t filthy or anything like that, but we didn’t have a lot of money, and daddy drank a lot,” she says. “I always thought we were smart, good-looking people; we were just poor. But we had a lot of happiness in our family, so I’m satisfied with our little step on the socio-economic ladder. I’ll always want that [happiness], no matter how successful or unsuccessful I become.”
Apart from a stint as an auditor for Price-Waterhouse (she majored in accounting at Georgia Southern University), Cook has pursued that success by singing country music. By the time she turned 12, she’d appeared on the TNN cable show You Can Be A Star, sung at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, and opened shows for stars such as Mel Tillis and Ricky Skaggs. Cook released her first album, on cassette, when she was 16. Her greatest achievement to date, though, has been to win over the audience and cast of the Grand Ole Opry, where she’s performed more than 100 times over the past couple years.
“What it all means continues to reveal itself to me,” says Cook of singing on the Opry, where she’s emerged as something of the show’s “sweetheart,” much as Connie Smith did back in the 1960s. “Obviously, there’s the exposure to all those people, and not just to the country music audience, but to the legends and stars on the show. Being around that wealth of experience and having to hit that stage, weekend after weekend, scared to death with nobody knowing who I am, having hardly rehearsed with the band, and then just getting up there and trying to make it happen — it makes you grow.”
One of Cook’s most memorable Opry moments came not on the show itself, but on a trip to eastern Tennessee to sing at a benefit with several of the cast’s mainstays. “It was one of those things where the closer you get, the worse it stinks,” Cook recalls. “There was no P.A. and we were all supposed to sing for people who’d paid all this money for a fancy dinner and to watch these Opry stars perform. We had literally two microphones, a skinny one that came up from the podium, and a speaker microphone, that was it.
“The people on the Opry are so professional,” Cook continues. “Bill Anderson got his acoustic guitar player up there, along with Tim Atwood, the piano player from the Opry staff band. There was an old upright piano in the corner, so I thought, ‘I’m going to do [Jessi Colter’s] “I’m Not Lisa”,’ and halfway through I hear somebody singing with me. I look over and standing at the podium, leaning over the skinny mike, is Charlie Louvin doing some strange, but very musical, harmony part.
“Then, when we got through with the song, Charlie started talking about the business, and country music today, and kind of went off on this thing, and there was Bill Anderson standing in the wings getting ready to come rescue me. Tim Carroll was playing acoustic guitar with me, and I said, ‘Tim, hit me an A chord,’ and I started singing [the old Louvins hit] ‘My Baby’s Gone’. Charlie looked like he forgot what he was talking about and immediately jumped in and started singing harmony with me. I thought, ‘I’m standing here singing “My Baby’s Gone” with Charlie Louvin.’ We got a standing ovation. It was amazing.”
Cook’s affiliation with the Opry has done more than provide her with mentors and memories; it also helped her secure a record deal. Barry Coburn, who was working in the Nashville division of Atlantic Records at the time, heard Cook singing on the Opry nearly two years ago and promptly signed her to the label. Shortly thereafter, though, Atlantic closed its Nashville offices, leaving Cook with a half-finished album and no record label. Warner Bros. eventually picked up her contract, but the circumstances that surrounded the transition were ambiguous at best.
According to Cook, as soon as she signed her new deal, former Atlantic president Rick Blackburn told her he didn’t want her to have any contact with anyone at Warner Bros. until she’d finished making her record. The arrangement, which apparently included instructions to the people at Warner Bros. to do the same, proved a source of great anxiety for Cook.
“I said to myself, ‘Do they like me, or are they going to drop me?,'” she recalls. “But then I thought, ‘They still wouldn’t be letting me spend money if they were going to drop me, right?’ The upside of it all was that I was left alone creatively and artistically. I did the record how I wanted to do it and it was done. It was a matter of ‘take it or leave it’ once Warner Bros. got hold of it.”
That “love it or leave it” scenario, plus the fact that Hey Y’all doesn’t sound like much of anything on country radio today, might make Cook look like a maverick, even an insurgent trying to subvert country music from the inside, but that’s hardly how she sees it. Nevertheless, Cook’s unaffected music has found considerable acceptance among alt-country enthusiasts, an audience for which she expresses nothing but respect.
“I think they’re true music connoisseurs,” Cook says of proponents of alternative country music. “They make intellectual decisions; they have a good radar for what’s good and what’s not.
“But appealing to them isn’t enough for me. It’s just not enough. I care about country music as a genre of music, and I want it to be healthy as a format. I want it to have artists that have integrity. If I can make that happen by being part of the genre, or by influencing who gets deals and who doesn’t — or just by effecting the undercurrent of musical trends around town — then I want to do that. Country music is like home for me. I want to be mainstream.”