Elizabeth Cook’s Album Steeped in Country

For those who complain that nobody sings “country” anymore, meet Elizabeth Cook. Take the colorful history of Loretta Lynn and the zany wit of Dolly Parton , make sure she’s as pretty and charming as a Southern girl can be, and you’ve got Elizabeth Cook.

Honestly. There is such a person, and she’s got a mighty fine record out, called Hey Y’All.

“I want to be a part of mainstream country music,” Cook says brightly but firmly. “I think I’ve got a lot of challenges in front of me because everybody thinks they’re different, but I think I’m confirmed in that!”

Indeed.

Cook’s mother, Joyce, dreamed of a career in country music early on but instead wound up as a mother of five in West Virginia with a no-good husband. She finally packed up the kids and moved to Florida. Eight years later, Joyce met an ex-prisoner named Tom Cook who had five kids of his own. He’d served time for running moonshine — and played upright bass in the penitentiary band. Before long, Joyce and Tom started up a band of their own, got married and had Elizabeth while in their 40s.

The charismatic little girl inherited their love of music, and Tom and Joyce trotted her out to countless Florida bars, outdoor festivals and retirement homes. She’d sing the hits of the day, such as “Daydreams About Night Things” or “The Wild Side of Life.” Not exactly appropriate choices for a grade-schooler.

“I had these really wild cowgirl outfits — really wild outfits with lots of fringe, satin and sequins, music notes and white cowboy boots and hats,” Cook recalls. “I remember my daddy loading the PA and taking the big Peavey speakers and loading them in the back. It was just kind of what our family did for kicks on the side. Lots of families have hobbies and things that they do together — go to football games or whatever, tailgate, and we went and played little country music shows.”

A Nashville talent scout recommended fresh material for the 8-year-old child, so Joyce wrote a song called “Does the Daddy Love the Bottle More Than He Loves Me?” Cook says, “My daddy was a roaring alcoholic, and he quit drinking when she wrote that song.”

Just like that?

“Just like that,” Cook says. “He hasn’t had a drink since.”

The glittery dream of stardom faded for a while, as Cook declared to be done with singing at age 12, wishing to take part in adolescent rituals like football games and slumber parties. Of course, the revelation took place in the middle of the night at a Nashville recording studio, when rates were cheaper, and Cook was sniffling from allergies. Her family meekly returned to Florida and, in time, Georgia where Elizabeth still sang, and once tried to hide the twang that has become her trademark.

“These local rich farmers’ wives decided that they were gonna have a pageant that would be part of the Miss America franchise, so they got affiliated somehow and they had this pageant,” Cook tells. “They were recruiting local girls to do it and there’s not that many to choose from. There was one girl that was like the pageant queen — she was in all the pageants. They came to me and said, “Look, 40 percent of this competition is talent, and we know you sing, so will you be in it?’ So I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll be in it.’

“I didn’t win. I got first runner up to the girl that always wins the beauty pageants, and she flaked like six weeks before the Miss Georgia pageant.” Cook laughs, “So ‘as my duty as first runner up’ . … The whole speech comes to life. I ended up at the Miss Georgia pageant in 1990. I was 17 years old, I weighed 100 pounds, all these other girls in this pageant are 25, working on their doctorate, voluptuous, and they have $10,000 beaded gowns, and I was wearing my Junior Prom dress.”

Cook perks up even more, about to reveal the punch line to this only-in-the-South story: “For the talent contest, the ladies were — because it’s Miss Georgia — real sensitive about the image being too country…so can you soften the edges? You know what I sang in the competition? [Billy Joel’s] ‘New York State of Mind’!” She slaps the table and howls with laughter.

A few years after her brief turn on the catwalk, she graduated with a college degree and moved to Nashville to work for an accounting firm. But when a friend of a boyfriend offered her a songwriting deal, she accepted the huge pay cut and moved in with her parents who now live outside Nashville.

Shortly thereafter, she took up residence in the publishing house until Atlantic Records offered her a deal. Then Atlantic folded and was absorbed into Warner Bros., which released Hey Y’All in August. The first single and video, “Stupid Things,” failed to catch on, perhaps because it was, as they say, “too country.”

Still, Cook is nothing if not country. She has no intentions of losing her Southern lilt now, simply to find a crossover audience. She’d rather make a connection with country fans, which explains her 100-plus appearances on the Grand Ole Opry. Cook is, after all, a devoted fan of country music herself.

“I don’t know how it happens for a lot of people,” she says about falling in love with country music. “I was lucky because it was something that I was born into. I was born into my parents’ country band, so I was exposed to it right away. My knowledge of it is just part of me. It’s not like I started listening to the Eagles in college and got an acoustic guitar to learn some chords or whatever and decided to come to Nashville.”

She adds with a laugh, “For me, it’s just been something that is sort of my white trash pedigree.”