In the Deep End With … Elizabeth Cook
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Cook
Elizabeth Cook has never been one for subtlety — which is exactly why we love her. She’s always said and sung what’s on her mind, but perhaps nowhere as loudly and clearly as on her 2007 breakthrough album, Balls.
With Balls, Cook found her signature sound after years of playing in Nashville and looking for her place within a music industry starting to tilt heavily toward trucks, conformity, and dudes. Produced by Rodney Crowell, Balls brought us “Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman” (which was banned from country radio, and its video featuring men in drag at a skate park didn’t fare much better) and “Times Are Tough in Rock and Roll,” both as clear a commentary on the climate of the times as you can get. But songs like “Mama’s Prayers” and a cover of Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” proved timeless.
“It’s been 15 years,” Cook says of the reissue in a press release. “In a way, I hardly recognize the sound of the girl on this record, but I recognize her drive for independence and stubborn insistence on freeing her voice. And it is an honor and awe-inspiring in this hard-knock town to still be standing today and have the opportunity to celebrate that.”
Cook has not only continued making music, including her 2020 album Aftermath (ND review), but she’s also added voice acting and radio and TV hosting to her résumé. The same year Balls was first released, she started hosting Elizabeth Cook’s Apron Strings on Sirius XM, still a staple of the satellite radio service’s Outlaw Country channel. On the series Upstream With Elizabeth Cook for the Grand Ole Opry’s Circle TV network, she takes fellow artists fishing, reeling in conversation along with whatever’s biting that day. And her voice can be heard on the scripted podcast Make It Up As We Go and the as Tammi on the TV show Squidbillies as well.
But singing and songwriting, of course, are her primary artistic canvas, and to mark the occasion of the return of Balls, we asked Cook for an update on her life, her music, and her outlook since then for a series we call “In the Deep End With …”. The questions start lighthearted but then swim a little deeper.
Music has always been part of your life, but for a while you were studying and working as an accountant. What drew you to that? And are there any ways that training and experience come in handy in your current career?
I was looking to not be around the chaos and alcohol I unfortunately associated with music from my childhood. I wanted structure and decency and pride, I think. I wanted to not live in a trailer. Besides knowing how to budget a tour on a spreadsheet when I was starting out, the best thing about it now is I see that I survived a failure, because I failed at being an accountant.
Since Balls, you’ve done tons of recording and touring but have also added a bunch of cool extracurricular activities — hosting Apron Strings on Sirius/XM and Upstream on Circle, and landing roles on the scripted podcast Make It Up As We Go and the TV show Squidbillies. Humor is a throughline in all of those projects. Where does your sense of humor come from, and how does it help you get through life?
Humor was a coping mechanism for my family. We didn’t have a lot and struggled through a mountain range of traumas to scrape together what we did have. My daddy was a natural entertainer anywhere anytime, at the bank, or at the bar. Mother was more wry and quiet, but some of the stuff I heard her quietly say under her breath, or in a “bless your heart” dripping tone, still makes me laugh out loud today.
What’s changed for you, personally, in the 15 years since Balls was first released?
Uhm, pretty much everything. I know more who I am, what I want, and what my boundaries are in achieving it.
“Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman” was banned from country radio when it first came out. Did you expect that, or did it surprise you?
It surprised me. I was so wide-eyed and innocent and just thought it was good ol’ country fun, LOL. And also that country people are completely capable of processing metaphors.
“Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman,” written with Melinda Schneider, talks about all the things that women balance in the modern world, including the need to look good while doing them. I wish I could ask you about how things have improved in the last 15 years for women, but it kind of feels like we’re either stuck in place or sliding back into darker times. How are you feeling about what it takes to be a woman in 2022?
Yes, the obsession with appearance has certainly been fueled by vain reality stars and social media. It’s a frustrating line to toe. I want to feel good. I want to be respected artistically and also like I have something to say besides “Hey, ain’t I sexy?”. I want to embrace and celebrate and perpetuate my power in my femininity at the same time. So yes, it’s tricky to me. It’s kind of a gift to age as a female artist really. Not “kind of,” I mean, it absolutely is.
Balls gave us “Times Are Tough in Rock and Roll,” and more than a decade later, Aftermath offered “Perfect Girls of Pop,” both of which speak to how the music industry treats women. Why hasn’t much changed in all that time? Do you think it’ll ever get better?
I honestly don’t know. I see examples of women punching through the system, but there has always been examples of that. In Europe recently, I saw occasional statues of historic women, their likeness on money — it was the Queen’s Jubilee while I was in London. I think it’s a matter of resources and self-determination because overall, in my opinion, we are still not as easily welcomed into the system as men.
Read more about Balls in this interview by No Depression co-founder Grant Alden from a 2007 issue of the magazine.