IT TAKES BALLS: Elizabeth Cook's dad raised her 'like a boy,' and her songs show it.
By Rachel Dovey
Men and women don't always get along in Elizabeth Cook's lyrics. There's the mechanic who cons his housewife clientele in "Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman." There's the mullet-haired charmer who may or may not slip Quaaludes to his dates in "El Camino." Then, of course, there's the guy who gets so shitfaced he can hardly get it up in "Yes to Booty."
Cook draws on her own background in this war of the red-state genders. Though currently a Nashville resident, the country singer grew up in what she calls a "depressed, forgotten, inland rural county in central Florida." Her parents—each divorced with five children apiece—met after her father's release from an eight-year stint in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for running moonshine.
"I could have been a lot of guys' little woman," she says when we speak on the phone. "Growing up in a blue-collar surrounding in the South, expectations of what you do and what you say and what you do with your life are definitely carved out."
But the guitar-slinger certainly doesn't live, or write, according to anyone's preconceived standards. She's a Grand Ole Opry regular who's mostly unnoticed by the FM set, a Loretta Lynn fangirl who covers the Velvet Underground, a serious songwriter who clogs. Her dual personas started young. "My daddy raised me to be like a boy 'cause he wanted me to be tough," she says. "But I've always been a petite blonde at the same time—a petite blonde that could go frog-gigging and deal with business situations in a forward way."
Despite the dark incarnations of Southern machismo in her lyrics, Cook's men aren't all bad. In "Rock n Roll Man," she satirizes a self-styled rock-god boyfriend with a lightning-bolt earring and dagger tattoo, but one gets the feeling she adores him too. "Sometimes we're Sid and Nancy or Courtney and Kurt," she sings. "We get higher than heaven, we get lower than dirt - It's the fightin' and lovin' that make it work."
It might have something to do with the fact that "Rock n Roll Man" is loosely based on Cook's husband and guitarist, Tim Carroll. "There are pieces of it that are probably directly related, and there are pieces of it that are artistic license," she says. When I ask Carroll himself about the song, he laughs. "I don't have a lightning-bolt-shaped earring," he says.
Cook and Carroll have been together on and off stage since 1998, and he wrote two songs on her latest album, Welder.
"It's not without challenges when you're five feet from the same person 24 hours a day," she says. "I'm sure it creates issues we're not even aware of. I'm sure if we were the type of couple that went into therapy, we'd find out everything that's wrong with us."
It's a second-generation partnership for Cook, whose parents, Joyce and Tom, also toured together as country musicians, becoming known as "the Medicare Duo" in later years. "They really had a beautiful love affair that didn't start out that way," says Cook. "Daddy was a mad drunk with the kind of issues that he experienced in his childhood that was sharecropping and terrible poverty."
Eventually, however, he joined AA and began singing. "I wouldn't say my mother was liberated," says Cook. "But because my dad was a musician, he really embraced the [musical] part of her, and that was the most important sense of self-expression for her. I have a little family video where some friends from Georgia came up to visit her two weeks before she died, and they're sitting in the living room of our trailer and she's playing acoustic and daddy's playing bass, and they're playing all their old songs together."
So men and women may not always get along on Cook's albums, but when they do, it's as poignant as only a country ballad can be. In "Follow You Like Smoke," the doublewides and booze and greasy-fingered mechanics melt away like Appalachian mist. Cook chants quiet, steel-and-string-laden couplets: "I'd stick to you like glue if I was able to - Cling to you like vine, if you'd just say that's fine - Hold you in my arms, and I would never tire - Follow you like smoke from a fire."
Elizabeth Cook opens for Todd Snider on Sunday, Feb. 20, at the Mystic Theatre. 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. 8pm. $20$22. 707.765.2121.