Elizabeth Cook takes an intensely personal journey on ‘Welder’
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
She’ll talk about the first time she played it, the emotional toll it took to record it, the metaphorical place from which it sprang — but Elizabeth Cook softly declines to go into details about the song “Heroin Addict Sister.”
As personal a journey as she took on last year’s “Welder” album, that song is its crown of thorns. It’s a gut-wrenching portrait of a woman’s lifelong battle with a singular demon, and the collateral damage that battle inflicts on her loved ones.
Her family’s reaction? She’d rather not say, she told The Daily Times this week. But it’s obvious that no matter what sort of foresight she might have regarding its impact, the song resonated too powerfully with her even in the beginning for her to leave it unrecorded.
“When I write, I’m never writing for any purpose other than my own storytelling, my own amusement, my own solitude,” Cook said. “When I’m through, I don’t know if it’s relatable to anybody else or not. So I picked this really sterile environment to perform it for the first time, when I was opening for Mel Tillis at a casino.
“It was a crispy, clean, old-school country music type of environment, and I was playing there for the first time. And I felt a lightning bolt go through me when I did it.”
Perhaps that lightning bolt was validation, a sign that Cook’s song needed to be brought to life — or rather, resurrected from her own life. Growing up in rural Florida, she was the youngest of 11 half-brothers and sisters, and her childhood reads like something out of a song she could have written. Her parents, both musicians, met while playing in local country bars.
Her dad learned to play upright bass in a Georgia prison band while serving 11 years for running moonshine. Her mother, a singer and mandolin player from the hills of West Virginia, wrote her daughter’s first songs, including “Does My Daddy Love The Bottle More Than He Loves Me,” and had Elizabeth singing on stage at 4 years old.
In college, she majored in accounting and computers, landing a job with the Price Waterhouse office in Nashville after graduating in 1996. With music in her blood, however, she wasn’t crunching numbers for long — she signed a publishing deal within a year and released three albums in four years — her self-titled debut in 2000, “Hey Y’All” in 2002 and “This Side Of The Moon” in 2004, the latter of which earned her raves from The New York Times, No Depression and more.
In 2007, her album “Balls” (with its tawdry-sounding title track, “Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman”) was released; produced by Rodney Crowell, it flirted with a mainstream sound while maintaining the traditional and Americana roots that had endeared her to fans. For “Welder” ww— named for the trade her father learned in prison – she retains some of that sass, but the record is heart-wrenching in its more tender, personal moments.
“It was not difficult to write; as far as the actual act of writing it, that was quite easy. Having the experience, and finding the emotion to pull from it, that was the unpleasant part,” she said. “Making it, I knew for me that it was an important record. I felt a huge weight come off my back, and I got physically ill the last day of the session.
“I thought I was pregnant, and I was going on the road that night heading toward Knoxville and stopping there before heading on to the Carolinas. I was just really, really sick. And (album producer) Don Was, who is a psychic, looked at me and said, ‘You’re having an adrenaline crash from this week.’
“The details of what is said on there mean things to me that are inexplicable, really,” she added. “I’m just relieved that it happened. Even if it would have never came out, if nobody heard it, if it never got a review, I was really relieved. And with each step, it’s kind of another relief, too.”
This weekend, Cook performs at “The Shed” in Maryville, opening for singer-songwriter Todd Snider (“He’s so cool, and such an inspiration to me,” she said). The party-goers will love the foot-stompers (“El Camino,” “Yes to Booty”), and the music aficionados will love songs like “Heroin Addict Sister” and the other searing selections that made “Welder” No. 23 on Rolling Stone’s 30 best albums of 2010. She may even share a recipe or a cleaning tip, as she’s prone to do on her weekly radio show, “Elizabeth Cook’s Apron Strings,” airing 6-10 a.m. weekdays on the Outlaw Country station of Sirius satellite radio.
Anyone who hears what she plays, however, will know that she speaks the gospel when she talks about the well to which she goes to draw water for her words.
“For the ‘Welder’ record, I was mining the whole time — digging the cave, digging the hole — and I found a spot where there was gold trickling, I guess, and that’s where I wrote from,” she said. “Either it happens or it doesn’t, and if it does, you’ll either have the tools to express the emotions that are there or not. I don’t really know.
“I know I’ll never make another record just like it — but I will make another record.”