If a lot of contemporary mainstream country acts suffer from the bland pleasantness that comes along with trying to be all things to all people, Elizabeth Cook is a country singer and songwriter with a natural ability to be two seemingly antithetical things to particular people—but without diluting her identity or her music.
She’s been singing on the Grand Ole Opry for a decade now, and seems perfectly at ease immersed in the show’s quintessential reverence for country-music tradition. And yet, since her brief and unsatisfying flirtation with commercial country and major labels around the turn of the millennium, she’s cultivated sparkling, smart-mouthed irreverence in her songwriting, resulting in hip, hard country-and-garage rock-blending indie albums like 2007’s Balls and this year’s excellent Welder.
“The Opry,” Cook says, “represents a part of my heart and what I do. I definitely can do that and I enjoy doing that. Developing down this road more as a writer and as an indie musician, that part of it seems to be veering off more and more from…”
She trails off before completing her thought. Does she mean she’s now writing some songs that wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate for the Opry stage?
“Right. And that was even true for Balls. But now I know that [the Opry’s] where I go to go sing a Louvin Brothers song or whatever I want to do from the old-school country part of me. So it really satisfies a part of what I like to do. And I think I fulfill a role for them. It’s a good arrangement. It’s probably unusual. But what isn’t?”
Nashville, via Georgia
Cook has traveled quite the journey to arrive at this unusual place. Geographically speaking, the telling of her story usually emphasizes two particular spots. One is Wildwood, Florida, the tiny, thoroughly southern town where she was raised in what she describes—with knowing affection—as a hillbilly-ish family; her parents played in hole-in-the-wall country bars before they started getting her county fair and feed store gigs as a kid country singer.
Explains Cook of Wildwood, “You know, most people, if you were gonna do well there and stay there, you were gonna farm. And if you were lucky, your family owned some land. So it was just a lot of farmers and then people that worked to sort of service the rest of the community. I remember me and my girlfriend, in our cheerleading uniforms, stealing the tractor and driving the tractor around the little campus field out behind the gym.”
Nashville is, of course, the other spot that receives attention in Cook’s biography. It’s the place she initially moved to take a decidedly unmusical job with the accounting firm Price Waterhouse, and where she jumped tracks not too long after to pursue a career in music.
Between those two points, however, there was another less obvious—though musically formative—locale. Cook’s family moved to Georgia when she was in high school, and it was there that she set her mind on going to college—something nobody in her family had previously done. While double majoring in accounting and computer information systems at Georgia Southern University, she returned to music making as a casual hobby—no singing at the fair this time—and took a few guitar lessons from a guy she heard playing in a local band.
“I don’t remember his name,” Cook admits. “And the experience was only about a month of my life, all told. But it definitely made a mark on me. I’m sure the band was called ‘Dixie’ or ‘Southern’ something. They had a Georgia Satellites vibe and played the roadhouses out on the Bulloch County line, where liquor could be served.”
She adds, “It was exciting. [The guy] had worksheets and paperwork for me and everything; the intro to R.E.M.’s ‘Driver 8,’ the chords to [the Flying Burrito Brothers’] ‘Hot Burrito #1’ and you get the drift. Anytime I’ve tried to take guitar lessons since, they’ve seemed awfully damned boring.”
A deal on her hands
Cook had strictly been a singer during her pre-teen career; her mother had even written some of the songs she sang. But during college, she started dabbling in songwriting. And whether or not it felt like a serious pursuit at the time, it bore serious fruit upon her move to Nashville—serious enough that she abandoned Price Waterhouse and began to see herself as a singer/songwriter.
“I didn’t write all that much [in college],” says Cook. “I had a couple of half-baked things and one song that was my best called ‘Time On Her Hands.’ When I went to audition to sing demos for [music publishing company] Bro ’N Sis, that’s the song I played [publisher] Jeff Gordon. I was sitting on his couch in a gray wool pantsuit, with his Takamine [guitar] on my lap. I felt very meek and must’ve whispered my way through the song until I stopped halfway through the second verse. He offered me a publishing deal right there on the spot. I was totally stunned.”
The singing and songwriting would open up some distinctive roles for Cook, but none of them—least of all those she now fills—has ever again called for as button-downed a thing as a pantsuit.