Elizabeth Cook - a biopic star in waiting
If Elizabeth Cook never makes it big in country music, the biggest loser might turn out to be Hollywood.
Because Cook’s life story already reads like the script for a Coalminer’s Daughter-style biopic – without the hits, although the way things are shaping up with her new signature song, Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman, major success might not be far away.
The youngest of eleven half-brothers and sisters, Cook grew up in rural Florida and started singing with her parents’ band when she was four years old.
Her father had learned to play bass in a prison band in Georgia while serving eleven years for running moonshine and her mother, a singer and mandolin player from the hills of West Virginia, encouraged the young Elizabeth by writing songs for her to sing.
Does My Daddy Love the Bottle More Than He Loves Me, delivered by a cute little blonde girl with pigtails, apparently tore up the honky-tonks.
Cook reckons that her parents took her along to their gigs to save paying her older siblings and half siblings to baby-sit for her. And despite being exposed to more than a few places that might justifiably be termed buckets of blood, the only blemish she carries from those times is a very minor phobia.
"There were fights and drunks and all the stuff you associate with country music going on in these places but none of that really affected me," she says in her down-home country twang. "I really just remember sitting swinging on a barstool, waiting for my turn to sing and staring at that jar of pickled eggs that was on every bar. I never did try one but even now, I can’t bear the thought of them."
At the age of nine, with a band of her own and a regional hit song in Homework Blues, she moved on to a slightly better class of venue, playing bluegrass festivals and arts and crafts fairs. It was in her early teens, though, that she encountered her most significant musical experience, the church.
"I’m not even sure that my parents knew what kind of place they were sending me to," she says. "They just got me up, saw that I was smartly dressed and sent me off to what turned out to be a Pentecostal church. It was really intense, speaking in tongues, all that stuff, but it was a blast because they had a five-piece blues band who sang about Jesus rather than their woman troubles and it was like going to a James Brown-cum-Rolling Stones gig on a Sunday morning. It really affected me and it was a good outlet for my singing because by that time I wasn’t the little girl on the barstool any more and I couldn’t go into places where they sold alcohol, which pretty much cancelled out the music venues."
On leaving school, she bamboozled the rest of her family by going on to university to study accounting and computer information systems. Her mother thought she was mad not to go full-time into music straightaway but Elizabeth had weighed up her options and decided that she should be able to support herself if she couldn’t make it in music on her own terms. Not for her the pop country that has made a star out of Britney Spears, who gets a namecheck in Cook’s song Times Are Tough In Rock ‘n’ Roll. As her latest album, Balls, amply illustrates, Elizabeth Cook is the real deal. She sings country. She sounds country.
"I can’t be someone else," she says. "I’ve had this accent since I was two years old and my way of talking, singing and writing is just how I use language, my cultural vernacular. The only difference between me and most of my family is in knowing that there’s actually a word such as ‘vernacular’."
On graduating from Georgia Southern University in 1996, she accepted a job offer from Price Waterhouse in, handily enough, their Nashville office. She was, she concedes, hedging her bets, hoping to break into the music business but prepared to work in a day job. When a publishing deal came up, she gave up accountancy, sold her apartment and her car and lived cheaply while writing the songs that would make up her independently released The Blue Album. Then Atlantic Records signed her and she thought she’d made it, only for Atlantic’s Nashville office to close three months after the company released her major label debut, Hey Y’All.
Released from her contract, she took a job as a waitress but kept singing and writing. On more than one occasion she found herself appearing at the Grand Ole Opry on a Saturday night and serving customers next morning who had been in her audience the night before.
"I’d be signing autographs on their napkins one minute and asking what kind of salad dressing they wanted the next," she says. "Word got round and the paparazzi turned up to take pictures of the singing waitress in her apron, but I was able to keep my perspective and I’m glad I went through that time because it showed people what I was made of, particularly those in the music industry."
A song on her first album, Dolly Did You Go Through This? would have shown ‘the suits’ how Cook felt about being a woman in a still-predominantly male environment – and Ms Parton knows about and approves of the song, having followed Cook onto the Grand Ole Opry stage straight after she sang it. Cook hadn’t intended writing another song in a similar vein. "Balls" just came out during a writing session with her sometime co-writer, Melinda Schneider.
"We’d already written two songs that day, one of which, Rest Your Weary Mind, appears on the new album, and I thought we were done," she says. "But then Melinda started moaning about all this stuff she was having to deal with and I started writing it down. It was finished within about fifteen minutes. I didn’t think much about it but I was opening for Nanci Griffith on a tour and I started singing it and it got a big response. So it went on the album and provided its title, Balls. I really started writing it as a joke but just because something’s funny, it doesn’t mean that it’s not true."
From The Herald, November 8, 2007