Who is Elizabeth Cook? Depends who you ask. She may be a quirky radio host on SiriusXM's Outlaw Country channel. Or she may be a traditional country singer-songwriter who's made hundreds of appearances at the Grand Ole Opry over the past decade. Or maybe she's a feisty Americana songstress who dishes up lines like "it takes balls to be a woman" with equal doses of bite and humor.
Equally skilled at classic country laments and sharp-tongued modern-day rants, the Nashville-based Cook is sort of a cross between an indie-bred Dolly Parton and a Dixiefied Dorothy Parker. That goes a long way toward explaining her audience, which Cook says is made up of "hipsters, Opry fans, bikers, truckers, and doctors."
On her most recent album, last year's Welder, the blonde, big-voiced Florida native fuses country, rock, pop, and even some R&B while breaking your heart on songs like the poignant "Mama's Funeral" and "Heroin Addict Sister." But she's a smartass too, throwing out hilarious lines in "Yes to Booty" and especially "El Camino," a redneck romance that includes the inspired couplet "If I wake up married, I'll have to annul it/Right now my hands are in his mullet."
Cook's southern twang provides plenty of country flavor, but it's no surprise to hear that she doesn't want to be pigeonholed in a single genre. "I don't really see how being a certain style is conducive to being honest at what you are putting out," she says. "I just write what I write." And inspiration these days comes from two oddly disparate sources: MySpace and rollerskating. A few years ago, Cook began blogging, a creative exercise that "was a real game changer" for her writing. As for rollerskating, Cook compares "the movement of the wheels and seeing things go by at a certain pace" to a stimulating artistic experience.
Like many singer-songwriters, the 38-year-old Cook started singing right around the time she learned how to stand. Her first time onstage was with her parents' band, which played some dumpy Florida bars back in the day. "It wasn't a fun place to be for a kid, seeing fights and crazy drunk people," she recalls. She finally got out of the family group when she was a teen, telling her mom and dad that cheerleading was "her calling." When she eventually did become a varsity cheerleader, her interests quickly shifted to "sloe gin fizzes and stealing cars."
Cook found her way back to music after graduating from Georgia Southern University. She took an office job in Nashville, but found the corporate side of things alienating. But she was totally interested in the city's music scene. She self-released The Blue Album in 2000. Two years later the follow-up record, Hey Y'all, came out on a major label. It bombed. But Cook became a regular at the venerable Grand Ole Opry and a darling of Nashville's tight-knit music community.
She eventually returned to the indie route and released the Rodney Crowell-produced Balls in 2007. Open-minded music fans loved it, but country radio stayed far away from songs like "Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman." Welder fared better, snagging three American Music Award nominations. Not bad for a record with prep work that sounds like it was put together by college kids in 1985: The night before they started recording, Cook made copies of the lyric sheets and charts at Kinko's. She then alphabetized everything and placed them in ring binders that were handed out to the musicians and recording team. The album was finished in five days.
That get-it-done spirit also feeds into Cook's DJ gig. She started hosting the Apron Strings show shortly after Balls was released, spinning a mix of old-school twang, outlaw country, and Americana. (The program can be heard from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily on SiriusXM.) It's helped to get people to her shows, even if many of them "have no idea what they are walking in to see," she says.
That's fitting, since no one's ever sure what Cook is up to — not even Cook herself. "It's all exciting," she says. "I don't know what will come next."