Sometimes you have to hike up your dress and grab your... dish towel. Or at least Elizabeth Cook does. For the Nashville singer-songwriter, cleaning has become one of the many outlets for generating her bold, Loretta-and-Dolly-stylized music.
"I'm very ADD, so I'll even have music going loudly on the stereo and windows thrown up in the house, and I'll just be wiping, dusting, straightening and doing something that's just sort of mindless, and I can just tap in," she says.
Her latest single, "Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman," came to her while she was visiting with her singer-songwriter friend Melinda Schneider. Cook refers to her as "Australia's Faith Hill." The two talked about life and relationships -- as women often do. Lightheartedly trying to give her friend some advice, Cook remarked, "Sometimes it takes balls to be a woman." What started as a goof has now become the centerpiece for Balls, her fourth album and her first for the indie label, Thirty Tigers.
"We just sort of started in to write, and literally in 15 minutes, it was done," Cook says. "So, yeah, I thought it was a joke, it was funny. It entertained us."
After trying out the song months later at a singer-songwriter showcase, Cook realized the song was well received.
"Then I just began to stick my toe in the water further and further and never really thought I could have gotten away with it," she admits. "I ended up doing it the entire time I toured with Nanci Griffith, opening for her, and then in Branson, Mo., in front of Ray Price. You can imagine that his demographic is an older and more conservative community, and it totally went over there. The people told me this is something that they enjoyed hearing, that they found entertaining and inspiring. So we ended up making a record around it."
Cook wrote nine of the 11 tracks on the album. Produced by Rodney Crowell, most of the album is performed live with very little overdubbing. "Mama's Prayers" depicts a lonely young woman kept together by the thought of her mother. She also covers Lou Reed and John Cale's "Sunday Morning" and duets with Bobby Bare Jr. in a love song, "Rest Your Weary Mind."
First off, "Times Are Tough in Rock 'n' Roll" sets the tone with self-reflection: "I keep on walkin' my country mile/I got my heart up all the while/Some would like to cramp my style/I keep on walkin' my country mile." But she said it's her punk-rocker singer-songwriter husband Tim Carroll who's had a tremendous influence on her music and overall sound. His love for punk, Velvet Underground and British Invasion-sound music has shed a new light on her musical styles.
"Having him in my house, he's got all this sort of country, punk approach to playing guitar, writing songs," she says. "It's like Hank Williams meets the Ramones kind of music that he does. I'd say that's definitely rubbed off on me because I love it so much."
The two co-wrote the optimistic song, "Gonna Be," featuring the lyrics, "I'm not a has-been/I'm still a gonna be/You just wait and see/You just won't believe/Keep looking out for me." Carroll's hopeful original, "Always Tomorrow," closes the album.
"Hope. That's sort of the key word I think," Cook says. "It's like people at the end of the day want a little bit of hope. It just seemed like the right thing to end the record. To start with 'Times Are Tough in Rock 'n' Roll' and end in 'Always Tomorrow,' it's like a little goodnight."
Cook has relied on her own hopes, as well as persistence and fan support, throughout her career. On the Warner Bros. Nashville roster during a corporate shake-up in 2002, her debut album, Hey Y'all, suffered from low sales. Trying again two years later, she independently releasedThis Side of the Moon, attracting attention from the likes of The New York Times, which tagged her as one of the Top 10 unheard artists of the year. Even following the accolade, she still received little airplay.
"I think that anybody who knows me or has followed me for very long -- and that would be a small handful of cult country music fans -- may have been frustrated for me and thought, 'Gosh, she's unlucky,'" Cook notes. "But I am very, very grateful for my path and the deals coming and going and the crazy Music Row stuff and all that. I'm very grateful and have such a great peace about it. I feel like it's a gift that I have gained that perspective."
Her humble nature comes honestly. Like Lynn and Parton, Cook's childhood reads like the lyrics from an old country song. Raised by a father who learned the upright bass while serving time in prison on a moonshine arrest and a mother who taught her to sing and play the mandolin at an early age, Cook's country sound comes naturally. She sang songs written by her mother as early as 4 years old, such as "Does Daddy Love the Bottle More Than He Loves Me." She had her own band at the age of 9. This determination and continued family support eventually lead Cook to Music City.
However, you won't hear her making apologies for who she is or where she came from. She's a Florida girl with lots of cleaning left to do, and she's thankful for her genuine country upbringing.
"Some people's parents aren't around or some people's parents aren't involved, and that affects them and who they've become," she says. "I was very fortunate to have two very good, solid, hard-working, honest, loving -- if poor, white trash country music people -- for parents. It's everything that I am."
Finding inspiration for her music isn't always easy. Cook said she has to dig deep to find the spark that moves her. She said that the true singer-songwriters tend to have the purest form, like Griffith, who sings harmony on "Down Girl," along with Crowell. Cook's traditional sound is often likened to country music greats like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, and she welcomes the flattering comparison.
"I embrace it because I come by it honest, so I totally embrace what it is," she says. "Would my life be easier if I happened to be doing what fits in with things that are currently successful? Probably. But from an artistic standpoint, because I respect their work a lot, it makes me feel good."