Elizabeth Cook is poised for the big time, but she's not selling out 

What Is Success?

What Is Success?

In 1970, the New Orleans composer and pianist Allen Toussaint recorded a song called "What Is Success," which explored the notion of making it in an indifferent world. "Is it doing your own thing / Or to join the rest?" is how Toussaint phrased it. And while Toussaint was writing from deep within the R&B idiom — a style that had already enjoyed plenty of success — the question becomes somewhat more fraught in the case of country singer and songwriter Elizabeth Cook. Critically acclaimed for two fine records she has released over the past four years, Cook has always been a country performer with a difference, and now she's poised for the kind of success Toussaint wrote about so ambivalently 40 years ago.

In August, Cook made an impressive appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman — television dates being a pretty reliable indicator of a performer's public profile. Self-possessed and extremely attractive, Cook proved a natural who charmed the host without singing a note. Referring to the death threats he'd received following a June monologue in which he'd joked about the death of al-Qaeda leader Ilyas Kashmiri, Letterman asked Cook, "No fatwas?" Cook came right back with the classic rejoinder, "I don't eat that."

Since the Letterman appearance — Cook had caught the talk-show host's attention with her SiriusXM Apron Strings radio show (See the Best of Nashville® entry on p. 58) — the singer says she's been considering a number of career options. And while Cook can't talk about some of it, by the time you read this she will have sat down with another talk-show host, Craig Ferguson, on his Late Late Show. She's also lending her voice to the character of Tammi on the Adult Swim animated show Squidbillies.

Yet Cook remains what she started out to be — a country singer. Her 2007 release Balls and last year's equally acclaimed full-length Welder proved the Florida native had figured out a way to revitalize country music in an age of bland, corporate mainstream performers. Balls featured Rodney Crowell's production and a superb cover of The Velvet Underground's "Sunday Morning," while Welder benefited from Don Was' oversight and sported the hard-edged but compassionate "Heroin Addict Sister." Not exactly mainstream, but it did take Cook a while to figure out how to work her way through — and around — Nashville.

"I felt like I sucked at trying to write Martina [McBride]'s next single, and I felt like I sucked at trying to make mainstream country records," Cook says from her Nashville home. "I just couldn't hit a stride with it. Nothing felt natural. I felt like a freak all the time, but it's not Music Row's fault, and it's not my fault."

Cook did indeed go through the Nashville machine, with a publishing deal and the 2002 major label release Hey Y'all. And while Hey Y'all and the self-released The Blue Album had their moments, it wasn't until Balls that Cook hit her stride with "Sometimes It Takes Balls To Be a Woman," a remarkable song that is too racy to have been a hit in the '70s and too sparely produced to compete in today's country music marketplace. This must have been difficult to realize, but now Cook looks at her career in a remarkably sanguine way.

"Now I do what I want, and when I want," she says. "And it's a responsibility, and I embrace it. I am grateful for everybody who supported and loved the blue record and loved Hey Y'all and saw something in me that would lead me to Welder. But I look back at earlier songs like 'Mama You Wanted To Be a Singer Too,' and that quirky sense of prose that I always have had. Writing songs is a pretty hefty task for a 25-year-old."

Favorably reviewed by virtually every critic, Welder really was an aesthetic advance. Full of fun and smarts, the record detailed the inner and outer life of a country singer hip enough to rock 'n' roll and conservative enough to sing in the manner of such forebears as Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton.

Given the state of mainstream country, Cook is probably wise to pursue other avenues — although those of us interested in her unique viewpoint will continue to champion her as a great country artist. As she says, "I don't have the luxury of trying to make art, or critically acclaimed records, although that's great. I want to make a living."

If that's a careerist statement, it's made by someone who has made her bones as an artist. As she made clear to Letterman, Cook comes by her art naturally, with parents who fervently believed in the power of country music and an accent she's shown no signs of ameliorating for mass consumption. If Nashville's mainstream country music industry is where rock 'n' roll has come to die and be revived for credulous music fans, Cook could serve as a healthy antidote.

As for fame itself, Cook seems slightly ambivalent about it. "We're standin' out in front of a bar in LA one night after the Letterman thing, and I got my picture snapped," she says with a hint of asperity. "I don't know if it showed up anywhere or not, but I didn't know it was happening until after it had happened. I got really upset — to realize you're being observed that way, I'm not at ease with that."

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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