By Dale Henry Geist, Editor-in-Chief
I first heard Elizabeth Cook’s voice when it was introducing a Steve Earle song on her SiriusXM Outlaw Country show “Apron Strings” about seven years ago. Cook delivered her careless, potty-mouthed banter with the countriest of Southern accents, and I was instantly beguiled. It wasn’t long before I realized that she was an artist in her own right, with a catalog that featured a roster of damaged characters improbably pulling themselves up from the gutter to fight another day.
Cook’s latest full-length, Aftermath, is a rockin’ slice of gorgeous noise and casually devastating lines (“Listen for the rattlesnake / Hear that weeping willow ache”.) It was released just before the pandemic hit.
I spoke with Cook via Zoom (the door to her office studio, I can tell you, is adorned with a big sign that says “FUCK.”) Rocking the largest pair of glasses I have ever seen, she was somehow both the quirky, arty type I’d imagined her to be, and solid as a boulder: thoughtful, analytical, and undeniably smart.
So let me just start by thanking you for doing this. And I wanna check in with you, how are you doing right now?
I’m pretty good. I really should not complain about a thing. You know everything’s been weird. You know, when COVID hit, it wasn’t the only thing that fell apart with me. I had some business stuff go down and I had this record in the can that I was trying to get out. And so it’s been, you know, it’s been quite a game to get the record out and then not know how touring was going to come into play, which it didn’t, or hasn’t yet. And I’m fortunate to have a fishing show on TV [“Upstream” on Circle network] and I’m fortunate to have – there’s some people making a film on me. And so I had work, and the SiriusXM show is every day. So I have plenty to keep me from getting into too much trouble.
So you’re okay. I mean, things are weird, right?
Yes, totally. Things are very weird. I have traveled to Georgia to see family a couple of times. I feel like everybody’s feeling their way through it, you know, and it’s really difficult in this day and age where any information is weaponized against your so-called enemy. So really difficult to navigate with that as sort of the, you know, brush along the highway. So trying to have patience and keep my wits about me the best I can; take care of myself, my mental health, my physical health, look in at all my friends, a lot, look in on my family a lot. Those are the things that this stillness has allowed.
Good. I just read that your bass player Bones Hillman passed away a few days ago and I wanted to just extend my sympathies. I don’t know if you were close with him.
We hadn’t completely lost touch, but we didn’t see each other every day, like we did for about four years. And not only see each other, but travel, play shows, eat every meal. And you live a lot of life and have a lot of experiences with someone. So he had a huge role in my life. And I don’t think I fully appreciated it, to be honest, until his sudden and unexpected – for me – passing this weekend. So, yeah, that one’s been really tough. But, you know, we’ve had a lot of practice this year dealing with our grief process. So I’m just gonna try and not, as I say to, you know, Todd Snider or Aaron Lee [Tasjan] or any of my artist friends: “Let’s just try not to add to the pile.” That’s the best thing that we can do for each other. So our focus has been there
As an artist, like, trying to not be doom and gloomy?
Well no, trying not to be another body on the pile, to be honest, like in a very literal sense. You know, there were two suicides in Hardworking Americans, basically, Jeff Austin, who was a former member [and Neal Casal], but you know, that was last year. So we were still that going into this year, but still everybody was in heavy touring mode. Then all that got pulled away and it just got kind of weirder and you had to be still with those things.
I know that you, and Aaron and Todd, it’s not just a job for you. As artists I think you feel like part of your job is to walk out on the edge and to live adventurously and explore. And I feel like in “Aftermath” in some places, you talked about the thrill of that, but also the danger of it. And I know that just for myself, and I’ve got a pretty calm life here as like a suburban dad, but these last six months just – everything piles on. And so to just keep your wits about you, when you’re programmed to go to dangerous places, psychically, that’s going to be a real challenge.
Man, you hit the nail on the head. And I am struggling with that because, unfortunately, yeah, it is a job when it’s your living. So that part coupled with the propensity for the mental health challenges of just naturally staying in a creative space, which are for me disassociation; so to go back from a state of disassociating, whether it’s to work on and be creative or to just escape life for a little bit, it gets gray, and making that transition is hard and it’s scary. And when you need to make adult decisions about, you know, putting on a new roof, for example, and you know, there’s nobody here that’s going to do that for me. Like I have to, I hold the money, I hold the power and I hold the need for a new roof, and I have to orchestrate that into reality. So. [Pause.] Yeah. [Pause.] That’s a big challenge.
Let’s get back to what we started talking about, and I don’t want this interview to be about Country Queer, but: why would you sit down with us? What is it about what we’re doing that’s interesting to you?
Well, I think y’all are good at what you do, because I wouldn’t let any adjectives or nouns that describe you be the sole reason I’m here. I think you’re good at what you do and the message that you’re spreading. So I appreciate that part. And then anything that just encourages some diversity in this extremely narrow and rigid country music mainstream that is presented to most of our population, you know, I’d like to support that.
That’s awesome. So you came from a small Southern town, and I know that the culture in places like that can be pretty conservative. Did you find yourself, over the course of your life, learning more about queer people and so forth – have your attitudes changed, or did you manage to sort of grow up with those (culturally liberal) attitudes as well?
I didn’t necessarily have any specific thoughts on things that are now social issues that I recognize as an adult, but that I just always had an open heart as a person. And so I didn’t just automatically dislike someone no matter what. It just wasn’t how I was wired, even though the racism that I was presented was wild.
I knew on a visceral level that it was wrong when I saw adults carrying out something that involved my school, because I had won Miss Fourth Grade, and a little boy had won Mr. Fourth Grade, he was the smartest kid in the entire grade. And he was like Will Smith. He was better dressed than everybody – but he was Black. And so Homecoming Parade was doing this thing where the Mr. and Miss of all the grades were going to ride on a float together from kindergarten through 12th grade. That would have put me being paraded through the shopping center, essentially coupled with a Black boy, and that was not acceptable.
And I went home and over dinner casually told my parents, not thinking anything of it. But the next day, my daddy was down at the school. And the only thing that I can ever reconcile with why he was that way is some sort of desperate need to separate himself from his own poverty and a lack of self worth and being a poor white country person. He came up sharecropping alongside Black families. And so all I can guess is that maybe that was why – because he would help anybody with anything. If somebody had a flat tire on the side of the road, we were going to pull over and, you know, he just was that guy.
But for some reason, when it came to this, what I learned was…treating white women like property; also having those white women coupled with a Black person…oh, it broke my heart. I was so embarrassed and worried about my friend, Byron. But what they did was they held another vote and a mixed colored girl, they gave her Miss Fourth Grade. And that wasn’t the only incident, but that was my first time of being completely perplexed and being demonstrated outward situational racism. I was like, no shit? And I knew then, this is ridiculous. This is hurtful and unnecessary, you know?
But I worry about this. Matter of fact, I just had a Black friend leave the house. And I was like, man, I hope that it’s not hard wired into me somehow to not want to like somebody that’s not like me, in some subtle way that I don’t even really – and I think I’m woke, and I think I’m loving and all this stuff. I worry about that. I worry about discriminating in subtle ways that I don’t even realize I’m doing. And I just hope that people that I’m around and love that aren’t like me are patient with me and educate me when I’m off base.
The fact that you worry about it and that you want that, that makes all the difference, really.
Yeah. If I was with my friend and said something racist that was just part of the vernacular that I didn’t even think of as being racist, And she was like, that’s [racist], I would be mortified. Like, “Oh my God!,” you know. “I didn’t know!” It’s ignorance. A lot of it.
So one of the things that I know about you is that you’ve been on the stage of the Opry, like hundreds of times, and you’re not a member, and I don’t want to impute any cause. But do you have any ideas about that or has anybody given you ideas about why would you not be a member since you’ve been on that stage so much?
You know, I really don’t know what’s going on behind that curtain. Rolling Stone just did a blurb about it that I didn’t know was coming and the Opry didn’t know was coming and was upsetting to me. Because yeah, it seems like, you know, that might be the right thing to do on their end. But that’s their sin and I do not worry about other people’s sin. And I don’t wake up every day or the next time I get called to play the Opry thinking, “I’m not a member of the Opry.” When I think about the Opry, I think about the familiar faces I’m going to see there. All the thousands of memories I have there – they knew my parents before they passed. We exchanged Christmas cards, seriously, as a family. I knew an old guard there and worked regularly with an old guard there.
To be honest, a lot of the newer members simply aren’t going to have the opportunity to experience that. So, man, I have had such a wonderful journey with the Opry. I just have gratitude. It would be great to receive that recognition, of course. But I don’t, you know, I’m not angry and I don’t wake up every day expecting…I look forward to playing the Opry as many times as they’ll have me and they’ll let my art on that stage. And their new network Circle is the network that airs my fishing show. So yeah, you know, what do you want?
There’s nothing you can do, except just do the best work you can.
Sometimes you get the trophy, sometimes you don’t get the trophy, you know? I don’t think I put stock in those things that maybe I should for my career advancement…
I just want to note that as a fan, that I wish you would you would get what I think is your due.
Yeah. And I’ll speak to that just briefly. There used to be this, like, the Best of Nashville in the Nashville Scene, and one of the things that you could get was Most Underrated Songwriter in Nashville, and no artist really wants to be titled as underrated. I’d rather be overrated. So what I say to fans that air that frustration of like that they don’t get to have their joy with me with enough people that share their view of my music or an excitement about what I do is that they’re out there, they’ll find each other on the Internet. Talk about me behind my back, please, and do the good work. And we’re all just trying to do the good work and look to the light, because the other stuff like – country music is not going to change because we’re mad at it and think it should change. You gotta be the change.
And obviously that’s what our mission is here. And fortunately, there’s a lot of people out there trying to, you know, shove things in a better direction.
So do you want to talk about Aftermath a little bit? I guess the first thing is, it’s been out for a few months now, and what’s your perspective on it now, after the world has had a chance to bounce off of it and vice versa. Did it do what you wanted it to do? Is it out there doing the work that you were hoping?
I think that it is. I think it’s way slower because there’s just no touring and people’s attention is split 50,000 ways and it’s so hard to penetrate anyone’s psyche to get them to pay attention to anything. And I don’t blame them. So we’re being patient. And I’ve had TV and film stuff happening, which has kept me really busy. So now that I’m at a respite with those two things, we’re going to focus back on continuing the album promo. For my personal artistic validation it’s hurt to not tour.
Did it come out the way you wanted it to and do you still feel about it like you did when you released it? Was it the statement you wanted to make at the time and is it holding that?
Yeah, and I can’t claim to have my shit together enough that I go set out to make a statement. I get a song idea and I flesh that out and create a piece of music with it. And, then when I get enough of them that I think are good enough, I put my record together. So I just hope that there’s some sort of coherence happening in my brain and with my output that it works.
I mean, yeah, I’m proud of this work. I’m proud of this work. I think I stepped it up from Exodus [Exodus of Venus, Cook’s 2016 album]. Sonically, it came out better than I could’ve ever imagined. I’ve never worked with a rock producer before – I mean, Don Was is a rock producer, but we didn’t make a rock record – and that operates like Butch [Walker] does. It was so fun to take these little rattletrap songs that I made little videos on acoustic guitar and hear them with all the bells and whistles, and my band Gravy played on it. I’m just, yeah, I’m really happy with how it came out.
I love it. It’s very rock. I mean, you’ve got processed vocals on there and there’s a lot of noise going on and it’s – I love it. And it seems like, you know, people like Aaron and you, and Margo Price, are putting out rock records, which is cool.
It’s probably been like in response to feeling oppressed or concerned – our own brand of anger. When I write a song, I never never go into a record like, “Oh, make a rock record,” or “I’m gonna make a country record.” I just write the songs and put them together. To me it’s just like, I don’t know that the same things that I think makes something country are what most people think makes something country. I consider like a very direct, earnest, no BS lyric – there’s always been a level of honesty and heart in country music. And yeah, I just don’t even think of it that way. There’s “Stanley By God Terry,” to me, that’s a country song. I’ll write it sort of thinking of Tom T. Hall meets “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” And “Two Chords And a Lie” for sure. You know, that was sort of my retort to the songwriting rule that they say in this town, which is not even real. So I feel like there’s country stuff on there.
But it’s all through pop or through Butch’s, like, super rock pop, and mainly I just wanted the songs to have an opportunity to sound big. I wanted all of them to sound like radio, straight across like in between Maren Morris and, you know, whatever. I wanted ’em sonically to sit in that space, to take folk songs and put them there. And yeah, Butch was the most happening thing – a gift from Aaron Lee Tasjan, by the way – that I found, that could make the sounds I wanted to make on these songs.
And so when you came to realize that you wanted to do that with these songs, were there records that you had in mind that you that influenced you or inspired you? Was there something you wanted to sound like or somebody you wanted to sound like?
I mean, yeah, probably more on a song by song basis. You know, I wanted “Thick Georgia Woman” to have Lynryd Skynryd and Allman Brothers. I wanted it to be a Southern rock song. I wanted “Half Hanged Mary” to be more like Stones. I wanted “When She Comes” to be more like Cat Power. “Perfect Girls of Pop” I was thinking about Rosanne Cash’s “Seven Year Ache.”
“Bones” just kind of came out of nowhere. Same with “Bad Decisions.” “Daddy, I Got Love For You,” I think feels…especially like a country song. I’d been writing that song over like 10 years. Of course, “Jesus, the Missing Years” [John Prine – ed.] was the inspiration for “Mary, the Submissing Years.” I’m trying to think if there’s any other specific…”Bayonette” was Melanie’s “Brand New Key.”
I have a playlist of songs that I love, records that I think are great, songs that I think are great. And then if I liked that vibe, just trying to cop that vibe in the music part, and that’s a lot of fun. A lot of fun.
Some of these songs seem to explore this idea of family as something that can be a source of comfort, but also constraints.
Definitely. When you say those things, I think of “Thick Georgia Woman,” who is a woman who is struggling with her affection and responsibility to her culture and tradition and her family, but there’s also trying to have something for herself. “Bones” is to my parents who passed, because I wear their promotion[Ed. – unclear on recording] jewelry.
I’m also hearing in some of these songs a theme about how you have to challenge yourself in terms of all kinds of adventurous choices that you have to make, to really be an artist. But there’s also danger there, right? One of the ones I was thinking about was “These Days,” where there’s a lot going on with this character that’s suffering in a lot of ways. But also trying to be free, right? There’s this idea of liberation that you’re always trying for, and then it can end up being dangerous.
Totally. Yeah. Right, because it’s for somebody like me to be fiercely independent is a risky thing. Because my perceptions of reality and choices can easily be skewed. My imagination is too good. So I think that yeah, I mean, in “These Days” I was…that was written about a very specific time where I was coming out of a breakup in a bad relationship. It was a dangerous time because I was coping in risky ways, but I was also demanding the right to do so. Because when I was in that position before, I got put in rehab by a group of people that care about me, but did not really understand the nuances of where I was and why, and what I needed.
And the rehab ended up being another severe trauma to add to the pile of traumas. So I look back and it’s like, I’m talking about somebody else’s life. I can’t even believe I got institutionalized. And nobody believed that my baking soda was for toothpaste. And I’m like an adult woman that runs a business and is well traveled. And I was like, you gotta be kidding me. You know, I couldn’t have my little iPod thing because it had a camera on it, and it was wild. Yeah. They accused me of throwing up my food because I kept losing weight, but I was not throwing up my food. I was starving all the time and ended up having to leave to go eat. And I called my friends in LA and I said, you can come get me, or I’m going to go get my stuff out of here. And I’m going to, I have a credit card and resources, and I will find my way somewhere to a grocery store. And, you know, it was bizarre. It was bizarre. So, yeah, that is dangerous. But “These Days” was the first song I wrote for this record. ‘Cause that’s where I was.
Yeah. You’re a courageous person and that’s inspiring for me.
Well, I tell my manager “I guess I’ll die on integrity mountain.” Like not playing enough ball with enough people. Not willing to manipulate my art in any way to make it more popular or digestible for the masses. I just think it’s wrong, basically, for me. I mean, some people provide like white noise entertainment, and it’s a huge deal and it’s the biggest of the market and…has a place. It’s just not what I do.
I wish we all got paid better for doing this, but this is where we are. This is what I do. And that’s, I made that decision over years of dancing with that, having major label record deals in my twenties, and Nashville, you know. Crazy.
Well, it does take a lot of courage and it’s inspiring to a lot of people. There have been people that have inspired me greatly to just try and become more and more free and more and more authentic. So it’s the best work you can do, if it doesn’t kill you.
Yeah, that’s right. What did Levon Helm say? “Not in it for my health.”
One thing I wanted to ask you about. It turns out you have a degree in accounting and computer information systems and that brought you to Nashville initially. That seems very interesting and not necessarily like the public persona that we have of Elizabeth Cook. Are those kinds of skills, or that mindset, something that has been useful to you and that you continue to bring to bear?
Yeah, I think especially because of struggles with being a child of alcoholics or disassociation or whatever, anything mechanical that I can do a certain set of steps and a certain outcome is assured, is something that I sought. And I went through like four calculuses for fun. As elective. Education was not particularly valued by my parents. They didn’t really understand what I was doing. They thought I should move to Nashville and be a country star immediately. When I turned 18 there had been a lot of toying with that over the years. So it is kind of random and ironic that – I had come to Nashville to sing before, but when I moved here, I came for a job. Ernst & Young in Atlanta was offering me like four grand less a year than Price-Waterhouse in Nashville. And I thought, cool, and I’ll be around Nashville and the glitzy music scene. And you never know. And 18 months into that job, I got a deal to write songs on Music Row.
Well I want to thank you very, very much for your time, Elizabeth. It’s been a huge pleasure for me.
Thank you for having me today!
Aftermath is available on all major platforms.