Elizabeth Cook Rocks Merlefest Stage

I first got dialed into Elizabeth Cook – literally – as a regular listener to the Outlaw Country radio station on Sirius XM radio (channel 62). Cook has been a daytime host of her own radio show, Apron Strings, for over 10 years. Her freeform approach and her candid commentary is a hit with many listeners. She often talks about her experiences on the road making music with her band, and it was that banter that made me curious about the music behind the personality I’d grown to enjoy on the radio.

Turns out she’s got five CDs to her credit and is a regular performer on the Grand Ole Opry. Drivin’ and Cryin’s legendary Kevin Kinney said, “Elizabeth is so far ahead and under the radar you better have a supercharger for that fastback if you’re going to catch up.” I got the chance to chat with Elizabeth prior to her performance at the 2019 Merlefest. It was possibly one of my favorite shows of the two days I was there. It was straight ahead country rock, one song after another, tight and full of energy. No wonder audiences love her.

The Nashville based, Florida born singer/songwriter hasn’t had a particularly smooth road to travel though – but then again – what authentic musician has? Her performances, her songwriting, and even her on-air personality are real, and straight from the heart of her life.

Roots Run Deep
Before Elizabeth was born, her dad had spent some time in jail for running moonshine. He spent his free time playing guitar and knocking around in a prison band. “He met my mom when he got out of jail,” Elizabeth told me. “She was a really, really talented, hot on the scene musician in Charleston, WV.” Her mom was trying to raise five children as a single mom in what Elizabeth called, “abject poverty, just trying to survive, so she didn’t get to keep pursuing it (music). She had a lot of promise too. She was a savant on mandolin, teaching herself to play by listening to Bill Monroe records. She could sing her butt off. She was just really, really, really good.”

Cook continued, “Dad wasn’t like a consummate musician. He was a scrappy guy, born on a cotton plantation in 1925. They would have their beater guitars and party and entertain each other on the weekends. He would plunk on his guitar and sing, but it was more blues, and mother was more Appalachian. In prison one of the many activities he had was playing a guitar, but he wasn’t anywhere near as good as mom.”

When her parents met, the two discovered that they were both musicians and that gave them a common bond. Elizabeth’s mom was already in a little honky-tonk band, and her dad joined with them playing bass. Her mother was 42 when Elizabeth was born; born into a life on the road living in motels with her parents playing in a small time honky-tonk band.

Just Came Natural
“My mom said she could hear me carry a tune early,” Elizabeth said, “as soon as I could talk, I could sing tunes in pitch. She could hear the melody of what I was singing. And so she started teaching me songs. And when I was about four, they put me up on stage, and started taking me to bars with them – that was a rough.”

When Elizabeth was eight years old, her mom wrote a song for her to sing called, “My Daddy Loves The Bottle More Than Me.” “My daddy quit drinking because of that song,” she said. “He got sober. But then the hard work really started. “After that, we really couldn’t be in bars, so they made a project out of me,” she recalled. “I was a stage kid but I wasn’t old enough, or mature enough, or driven enough for attention to really be that into it, to be honest,” she said. “I was just like: these people feed me, shelter me, and keep me from dying, and they want me to get up here to sing this song, so I guess I’ll do it.” It wasn’t a life a young girl should be living, but somehow Cook survived and found a way out of it.

Had To Walk Away
At some point Elizabeth said she had to, “Blow all that up … I rebelled against all of it,” she recalled. She went to college, got a degree as an accountant, and as she put it, “tried to have a straight job and fit into a straight world; and not because of some decided resolve to be rebellious, just because that is the way it was supposed to be.”

“I defected,” Elizabeth quipped, “and parted ways due to irreconcilable differences with that dark world.” But it wasn’t to last. “I got a publishing deal on a fluke,” she said. “And I found myself writing songs and getting paid for them, and then singing them, and then, well, it just kept going that way.”

I asked her if she always knew she wouldn’t be able to stay in the “straight” world forever, eventually ending up back in music. She answered, “I was serious as hell. I was done. I didn’t want anything to do with it. It’s taken me years, and still I struggle with it sometimes, just to get over the smell of sound check, and the smell of those little seedy bars down in central Florida, the cold air conditioned, dry wet stinky beer, and smell of disinfectent. Old smoke and old ash trays. It’s like a trigger for chaos,” she lamented.

“I think I’m just a writer at heart. I like to write, and I like to tell stories. And that’s sort of a way of processing the past for me, and apparently it has some entertainment value for other people, “she laughed and continued, ”Since I can’t seem to fit into a straight job; I have a hard time doing that; then by default, it has become a career.”

“I wish I was one of those people that loved to go out and be on stage; and I’ll party on stage, don’t get me wrong; but I’m not driven by that. I don’t really like all the attention on me. I’m actually shy, ironically,” she said.

On Air Talent
While on tour for her Balls album, Elizabeth stopped in to the Sirius XM studios in New York for an interview. The programmer was the one who interviewed her, and it just so happened that they needed a female personality on the channel. “They needed somebody with some sort of southern or country music Cred that sounded a certain way and maybe had an accent or something,” she recalled. Initially she turned down the offer, but agreed to do a test monolog anyway. “He talked me into doing it one day a week, then he got me to do two days, and now it’s five days a week.”

“I get to; to go on the radio and talk about anything I want to in a very earnest and stream of consciousness way, and talk about music and things that I’m passionate about. The fact that people tend to relate to it and some people even tend to rely on now; It’s part of their day and a bright spot or something that distracts them from things that they want to be distracted from; It’s really an honor to get to get to do that and be that for people. I’m humbled by it. It’s amazing to get to be able to have that effect and be in that roll for people. It’s a responsibility. But it’s also good for me too,” she said.

I asked Elizabeth if she had finally come to terms with being in the music world as an adult. “Oh yeah, for sure,” she said. “It’s a hard way to make a living. But the spoils are ridiculous. And how much fun and crazy stuff I get to do all the time. The nature and nuances of it are just insane. There’s a lot of perks. Sure, there are days where I wish I could be a landscaper, or I wish I could be a housewife. Yeah like a really good housewife,” she laughed. “But being in the camaraderie with other artists and musician friends is really great. I enjoy my band and how close we are. My team, my manager, my tour manager, my family, my artists friends that are out there doing what I’m doing somewhere else tonight, and how we text each other and check on each other. I love the sense of community I have within it. It’s wonderful. And I get a lot of comfort from my friends and peers and colleagues.”