Elizabeth Cook Seeks a Niche for Her Funny, Painful, Honest Songs

When Elizabeth Cook appeared on the The Late Show With David Letterman last month, it was without a guitar or microphone. Instead of asking the hard-tack country singer on to perform, Letterman just wanted to chat with her. "He's come to know me just sort of recently from the radio show, so he had only really heard me talk, I think," Cook says by phone from her home in Nashville.

Cook is a good talker, which is why Sirius XM recruited her to host a program called Elizabeth Cook's Apron Strings, on the satellite radio network's Outlaw Country channel from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. weekdays. And she didn't disappoint Letterman, with her big twangy voice and her tales of growing up in Florida as the youngest child of a musical family. Her father was a moonshiner who honed his chops playing bass in prison bands before meeting her mother and going straight. Cook told Letterman about how her parents had her on stage from the age of 4, and how they tried to discourage her from going to college because they thought country music was a more promising career option.

But Cook is an even better singer and songwriter than she is a talker. She can be funny, as on the boogie-blues of "El Camino," which recounts a crush on the wrong kind of guy: "I told him, ‘Your car's creepy, man/And not in a gangsta kinda way, in a perv kinda way.'" She can be so artfully honest that it's hard to listen, e.g., the self-explanatory "Heroin Addict Sister": "She pushes a tiny needle/It's like the devil's DNA/It takes her somewhere she's just gotta go/But can't afford to stay." And she's an ace at the kind of grown-up relationship song that has long been the particular province of Music City.

None of which has yet made her a star. Since making her debut on the Grand Ole Opry in 2000, Cook has released five albums that have shown her maturing from a promising young talent, through a brief, unsatisfying major-label fling, into an idiosyncratic, often surprising voice. Her last two albums, Balls (featuring the should-have-been-a-hit "Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman") and Welder, were released on the Nashville indie label 31 Tigers, which reflects her tricky place in the country-music universe.

"CMT's been great to me, they do spin my videos," Cook says of the cable channel owned by MTV. "There's a few country radio stations that will play me, but as the whole collective corporate group, which is how they sorta roll these days, no."

So her exposure has come via other means—her Sirus show, which started as a weekly gig in 2007; alt-country websites and charts; and a lot of touring. Her show at the Square Room this week will be in a trio with her husband, Tim Carroll, on electric guitar, and former Midnight Oil bassist Bones Hillman. (After Midnight Oil dissolved some years ago, Hillman moved from Australia to Nashville to take up the stand-up bass.)

Welder, produced by Don Was and named for the trade Cook's father learned while in the Atlanta federal penitentiary, placed third in last year's Country Music Critics Poll in the Nashville Scene. In an accompanying essay, chief Scene critic Geoffrey Himes wrote, "Elizabeth Cook is precisely the kind of person country radio should want as both an artist and a listener. Raised in the South by working-class parents who listened to Merle and Dolly, this thirtysomething would seem to be at the center of country radio's core demographic."

Cook's connection to that lineage sets her apart from most of what calls itself Americana these days. She doesn't sound like she's trying to be country—she just is. She compares herself to the outlaw-era stuff she plays on her Sirius show. "Probably the common denominator is, we didn't want to conform to the parameters of the commercial country music of the moment, the things that they need. We've been on the inside, we understand what they require to have mass commercial country radio airplay, and it is not a rewarding musical process for me, and probably wasn't for them."

On the other hand, there's no reason that a honky-tonk shuffle like "Yes to Booty" shouldn't find a mass audience. The song makes anatomically clear the bedroom benefits of putting down the bottle: "If you've slept with a drunk man/You understand it's not that hard." And its echo of Loretta Lynn's "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin'" is a reminder that country music at its best has always been candid about the pleasures and struggles of day-to-day life.

"When you're living life on that level, oftentimes a rural level, which means not a lot of money, and you're living more emotionally raw, then that's the kind of music that's going to resonate with you," Cook says. "Nobody in rural south Georgia in the '50s wants to hear show tunes. They're not living that life, they're not having martinis, that's not what they're dealing with. There's no time for bullshit and the ribbons and bows. People are dealing with heartache, and cheatin', and drinkin', and dysfunctional f--ked up family, and music helps them deal with it. It helps. I really believe strongly in the medicinal power of it."