Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Cook is a clogger, a Grand Ole Opry regular, a clever radio host and a cheerful conversationalist. But above all of that, she’s a singer-songwriter who has found acclaim and an appreciative audience in the Americana field, following a brief career in mainstream country.
The chapter about Cook’s intriguing life and career is a highlight of author-journalist Jewly Hight’s new book, Right By Her Roots: Americana Women and Their Songs. In this segment, Cook explores how her parents and siblings influenced her skillful songwriting.
Cook’s roots lend her songs grounding and heart, and the way she confounds all manner of stereotypes gives her writing nerve. She had her Florida stomping grounds in mind when she cowrote “Ocala,” a country ballad that closes Hey Y’all, with Hardie McGehee, a songwriter signed to the same publisher as her at the time. In it, she describes distinguishing characteristics of the decidedly un-Disneyfied inland spot she called home — sunning alligators and Silver Springs’ glass-bottom boats, for instance — and makes clear that it still has a hold on her heart.
But physical place is less prominent in Cook’s oeuvre than the people who have her affection. Early on, she wrote “Mama You Wanted to Be a Singer Too,” a straight country song addressed to her mother and featured on both The Blue Album and Hey Y’all. It was a hefty song to write at the start of her adult career, one that acknowledged that the dream of being a country singer was her mother’s before it was ever hers, and that the hard facts of her mother’s life — having five children with a first husband who repeatedly abandoned the family without money or food in a remote West Virginia holler — had made pursuing it unimaginable. Cook, in a sense, carries her mother’s musical aspirations along with her own.
“I remember specifically when I started writing the song, daddy would make [mama] sit down at the table with him while he got the bills out and told her how much to write the check out for,” says Cook, recalling the song’s down-to-earth inspiration. “And there was a little documentary on about Tammy Wynette and they were interviewing her and they were showing her house … And mama kept getting distracted by that. … I wrote it and sat it out on the kitchen counter late that night. … She got up the next morning and she came into my room crying.” Cook ventures a guess as to why: “I think she thought it was a good piece of writing. And I think she was probably also touched that it was her story.”
Several years later, after Cook’s recording and publishing deals dissolved and her career was in a sort of limbo, she invoked her mother as a source of unfailing comfort and steadying strength in “Mama’s Prayers,” a heartfelt two-beat on Balls. Knowing that she was someone to her mom, regardless of the circumstances, overshadowed the chafing reminders of all that she had yet to accomplish in music. Because her mother passed away between Balls and Welder, the song has become even more poignant. “She was just insistent on it — insistent that her family be close; insistent that she was gonna hold it together, no matter what,” says Cook. “I don’t think we all realized what a rock and a touchstone this sort of tiny little country woman was for all of us.”
Though Cook’s mother is no longer here in the flesh, she can be felt on Welder. In the aching country song “Mama’s Funeral,” Cook describes her mother’s impact in terms of lives touched; a good many people came together on the rural plot of Tennessee farmland to which Cook’s parents had retired and helped shoulder the grief of losing her with a thoroughly informal funeral. The song says much about the resilience of her family; there was laughter, and beer drinking, right along with the mourning, all part of one big home-style package.
In a different era, before Cook ever picked up pen, paper, and guitar to express herself in an original way, her mother was the one writing the songs, first as an outlet for her own thoughts and emotions, and later for her daughter to sing. On Welder, Cook plucked a song from the former category for her own use. That song is “I’m Beginning to Forget,” a heart-dragging country weeper — the plea of a soul trying to get over somebody who keeps coming back around, stirring up old wounds and feelings all over again. It was not just a plausible scenario that her mother dreamed up. “I imagine now,” shares Cook, “that that was about her first husband that continued to come home and keep her pregnant and leave and kind of had her trapped. You know, when she finally just had to let go, that the father of her, that was hard. He was real good at building the fantasy up. Repeatedly.”
Besides being in the songs, Cook’s mother, and father, got to be close to the action. For one thing, they saw her grace the Grand Ole Opry stage more times than she can count. The Opry’s historical and cultural significance may outweigh its commercial clout in contemporary country music, but her mother could surely remember the star-making institution it had once been. Cook calls singing on the Opry “the single most important thing that I ever did for her in my career, performance-wise.”
Sometimes when she played elsewhere in middle Tennessee, her mom and dad would do more than watch; they would dust off their old honky-tonk repertoire and open her show with a short set of their own — that or sit in with her for a song or two. Cook’s dad still hauls his electric bass onstage at some of her local shows to cut up for the crowd with his country songs and hillbilly humor, and to brag on his daughter. The Blue Album features recordings of her parents reminiscing, and playfully disagreeing about, how they got together in the first place, and what role music played in that story. In the liner notes of Welder, she honors them both, noting that the album title was partially inspired by her dad’s work as “sole proprietor of Cook’s Welding in Wildwood, FL,” and dedicating the project to her mother’s memory. “I mean, my parents especially, being musicians and loving country music and just loving people and being around country shows and stuff, always have stuck really close,” says Cook. Involving and invoking them in her music has been a way of staying connected to her roots, even as she lives, and writes about, a life that has taken a different direction.
By no means have Cook’s parents liked everything she has done musically — nor has suspecting they would not like something stopped her from doing it. “I knew that I’d have to make it my own and do my own thing,” she says. “[My mom] certainly doesn’t understand — or did not understand — everything I was doing. She did hear ‘El Camino’ before she passed away.” “El Camino,” recall, is Cook’s funny, out-there account of unlikely seduction. In titillating detail and cool jive talk, she describes the shady qualities of the seducer’s truck-car, as well as his psychedelic shirts, mullet hairstyle, and choice of air freshener scent: Piña Colada. And did her mother get it? “No, she didn’t get it,” laughs Cook. “She did not understand it at all. She would say, any time I did anything that she didn’t like or wrote anything she didn’t like, she would just go, ‘Elizabeth, reaaally.’”
Cook’s mom did not get the chance to hear the way she merged gritty realism with familial feeling in “Heroin Addict Sister” on Welder. The song is a pained close-up portrait, with Cook’s brittle, bruised singing laid over finger-picked guitar. She tells it absolutely and unadulteratedly like it is, yet she is also fiercely affectionate toward the song’s subject: her real-life heroin-addicted sister. The verses are packed with vivid description of her sister’s personality traits — some destructive, others lovable — her pleas for help, her past crises, and their emotional aftermath. Cook sounds deeply concerned for her sister, as she contemplates the ravages of the drugs and the dangers and indignities of the streets, but also, in fleeting moments, genuinely tickled by her sister’s more harmless exploits.
It is a revealing song — about the sister’s troubles and about Cook’s commitment to directness. She has a hard time talking about that relationship, and, from the sound of things, found it no easier to write about. Still, she did. It has been a great relief, she emphasizes, when people have picked up on the empathy in the song: “Oh, good. I don’t sound like I’m pissed off or mad because I’m just sort of spewing my observations about it.” And Cook does not take those interpretations of “Heroin Addict Sister” lightly. “My mother, if she instilled anything in me, that you don’t … ,” she trails off. “She was crazy about all of her children, and no matter what any of them do, you better not ever be harmful to each other in any way. And so out of respect for her, that maintains.”
Addressing matters that hit that close to home, especially for the people Cook cares about, and doing it in such an unvarnished way — or, as she lightly puts it, “spewing” — is not an easy undertaking. The fact is, she often needs a certain amount of space from her family to write songs without censoring her point of view: “Because it’s hard to do art around your family — it is for me.”
Cook describes the nerves she felt the first time she attempted “Heroin Addict Sister” live. “I was in Washington State at a casino opening for [veteran country singer] Mel Tillis,” she recalls. “There was absolutely no one there to see me. … I remember doing it and kind of feeling as I was going through it that it was definitely tense. … But then when I was through I sensed that it was good. And then I had people come up and talk to me about it, a brother and a sister in particular.” Knowing that someone is relating to what she is singing, she says, makes her discomfort worthwhile.
Printed with permission from Right By Her Roots: Americana Women and Their Songs. Baylor University Press.