There aren’t many people who’ve parlayed childhood country-singing dreams and Pentecostal choir experiences into as variegated a career or as fascinatingly layered a persona as Elizabeth Cook.
By the end of last year, she’d cemented her reputation as one of Americana’s premiere smart — and smart-ass — stone-country singer-songwriters. She’d scored with a funky little roots-rap about making out with the driver of an El Camino, and she’d gone from being one of David Letterman’s favorite satellite radio personalities to one of his favorite personalities all around — and that in front of millions of viewers.
This year, Cook followed up by releasing the down-home, garage-rocking Gospel Plow EP and edging ever closer to landing her own sitcom or something like that. And 12 months from now, there’s no telling what new adventures she’ll be able to report.
CMT Edge: How many careers would you say you have going now?
Cook: I think I counted four the other day. It’s difficult. I mean, I’m very challenged right now and in a bit of a matrix in trying to decide where to put my energy, what’s left of it, coming off three years of touring. It’s tough, tough to know what to do, really. I’m a little lost. But I think that’s normal, and I’m just going to let myself be lost for a minute and take a couple of months off. I was supposed to take a few months off in the spring and write for the record, and my dad got sick and died, and that was that. So I didn’t get to do that then, and then we started summer touring. I’m just coming off that now.
Sounds like it’s a miracle you got any recording at all done this year.
I know. We slammed out the gospel EP because I wanted to do something and needed to do something for the marketing people or whatever. It would feel good to go in and do something that was low pressure but I was inspired to do, so that’s sort of the Gospel Plow thing. I was trying to save that up. I wanted to do like a juke joints and Jesus record. I wanted to do a record that addressed what I feel is a part of a lot of people’s rural narrative — you’re either in the church or you’re in the bar, and there’s no in between — to have that all on one record and tell that story about redemption and then falling off the wagon and falling back into sin and self-destruction. And then redemption and self-destruction and redemption.
Saturday night, then Sunday morning.
Yeah. I think that’s so much of people’s struggle, and I really think that music is the best way to sum that up. So I really wanted to make that record, but I wasn’t quite ready to bite that off. So we just slammed out the gospel EP.
How does it compare with the music at the Pentecostal church your parents sent you to as a kid?
I’d say the only difference is grunge. It’s grungier. There’s more distortion on it. That’s it. I mean, [at church back then] it was very swingin’ roots-country and blues music and sometimes bluegrass. It was like a hot night at the Opry where the Osborne Brothers would come out and then somebody else comes out and does a slammin’ country thing, from [Johnny] Paycheck to the Osborne Brothers. It was that, but with religious themes. Dottie Rambo, Vestal Goodman, I mean these are inspired [singers]. This is rock ‘n’ roll to me. It’s about an emotion more than anything else. And whatever you want to attach to that emotion — for some people, it’s sex. For some people it’s drugs, and for some people, it’s Jesus. It’s the same thing.
Did it catch people off guard when you followed Welder with rock ‘n’ roll gospel?
Yeah, for sure. In some ways, I’m in this sort of undercurrent of country music, whether I’m included in mainstream country music or not. We are distant relatives. Patty Loveless has made a gospel record. Randy Travis. It’s done.
But they don’t do it as a follow-up to “El Camino.”
Right. That’s true. It wasn’t completely crazy that I would do it. It would only make sense that if I was gonna do it, even though I’m doing this traditional thing, once again, I have to throw gasoline on it and a match and do some really awkward, uncomfortable thing for a lot of people to understand. (laughs) And then a lot of my fans that know me from whether it’s Outlaw Radio [on satellite radio] or from “El Camino” and me singing about heroin and all this other stuff, they know I’m a potty mouth. I mean, my religious disposition could definitely come up for debate, and I was a little afraid that it might. But it’s irrelevant to me. That’s not the point here. I’m not trying to change anybody’s view of the hereafter. I just really want to point out this awesome, inspired music that is just as valid as it is when we sing about love, secular love or drinking or anything else. It’s just as emotional and relevant as that. In my own way, that’s what I wanted to do.
People are finding out about you a lot of different ways, whether it’s through your Apron Strings show on satellite radio, Letterman appearances or something else entirely. Do you have any sense of whether it’s your music, your personality, your back story or some combination that’s grabbing attention?
No, I don’t. I wish I did. I need to put out a study group or something. I don’t know. … I’m like the Opry Mills Mall of entertainment. I’d like to think it’s because I am myself in whatever I’m doing, whether it’s making a record or on the radio or doing something on TV or whatever. That consistent thread’s always there. It’s just sort of the trappings of what’s around it [that changes]. So I think once somebody, if they hear me on the radio first and then they go get the record, I don’t think they’re necessarily surprised, except in hopefully a good way. I have people come to shows sometimes to see the radio personality, and they’re like, “Wow, and you can sing, too. And I didn’t know you were a songwriter.” And then they’ll have somebody standing in line beside them at the merch booth and be like, “What? What are you talking about? She has a radio show?” [laughs] You know? It’s a strange situation. I don’t know what to do with it.
I remember you saying you had an encounter on tour in Key West, Fla., where a couple of guys recognized your voice from the show but were completely thrown off by you not looking the way they’d envisioned. Does that kind of stuff continue to happen?
Yeah, it does. I notice more that I can be somewhere in a restaurant and just order food and somebody can hear my voice and recognize it. It’s odd. Yeah, those guys in Key West, that was a pretty hilarious situation. They push chickens through the Chesapeake Bay on a barge and they listen to Apron Strings. And I can just picture them with a lantern pushing through the fog at 5 in the morning, back when I was pulling the morning shift. The guy told me he thought that I was a little old lady with a pot of beans on a wood-burning stove with a bathrobe.
There’s something to aspire to.
You know, I can grow into that. That’s the good news. It’s like, I could end up there.
Was it at all like that the first time you met David Letterman since he mainly knew you from the radio?
Well, when we met was when I walked on the stage on national TV.
He did seem like he didn’t quite know what to do with you.
It was bizarre. He was really nice. That was what I was relieved about. Those last few seconds right before I walked out, never having experienced anything like that before, not having the comfort of my guitar and a set list. That’s how I’m used to entertaining people. So I just didn’t know how this was gonna go. … I sat down, and he’s just so skilled and earnest with me that he made it really easy.
You certainly knew how to make the most of the moment.
I was so freaked out, I don’t think I can claim credit for making any great choices. Whatever happened just sorta happened. I think I got lucky that it was funny to some people and he was entertained. … We had a lot of fun, and he’s been real cool to me ever since. He keeps checking in on me, concerned about my career path and what I’m doing.
He would like to see you doing something in the world of television or film, right?
Yeah. He’d like for me to be present in a broader sense, I think.
Is there anything brewing that you can talk about?
I mean, it’s all so far down the road, it’s too premature. Everything’s still spinning. I mean, what we’ve found is that Hollywood is Nashville on acid. It’s a lot more unpredictable and dysfunctional and all those things. … I never know what’s gonna happen from one day to the next. … It would be so much simpler if somebody just said, “Hey, come host our show on pig wars or whatever.” [laughs] I could at least say “yes” or “no” to that and think about that. But this just runs the gamut of things. And everything is so hard to actually get going that the odds are always so stacked against you. They’ve had me doing everything from sitcom deals to talk show deals to. … I’m not interested in doing a reality show based on my personal life. That’s the only thing that we’ve really completely ruled out.
Do you have any sense of what next year is looking like for you?
We’re going to reassess in January, but it is pretty up in the air. I know we’re going to Australia in January. I need to make a new record. I will, I’m sure, at some point. It’ll probably be late in the year, though. There’s an indie film I might be in that’s shooting in February. Or I might be cast in this and they need me in L.A. all of March. It’s a moving target.