Women on Top 

New records by veterans Elizabeth Cook and Pam Tillis find both women on higher ground

Elizabeth Cook has been recording and performing for a decade, releasing a major-label effort that went nowhere and independent records that received critical acclaim. Balls represents a chance to simply make her kind of music.

Country music might profess love for working people, but the industry doesn’t make it easy for performers who want, or need, mid-level careers. On their new records, Elizabeth Cook and Pam Tillis set about reinventing themselves, and if Cook’s Balls is declarative where Tillis’ Rhinestoned is allusive, each suggests that country’s notions of stardom and success are more in the nature of seduction than commitment. The records work off of pure smarts, but partake of glamour. They do their work and move on.

Cook has been recording and performing for a decade, releasing a major-label effort that went nowhere and independent records that received critical acclaim. Balls represents a chance to simply make her kind of music. Her major-label debut, 2002’s Hey Y’all, was an attempt to cut a modern country record live in the studio. “It was an experiment, but it didn’t really work out very well,” Cook says.

Produced by Rodney Crowell, Balls uses a crack band that includes drummer Harry Stinson and guitarists Kenny Vaughan, Richard Bennett and Tim Carroll (Cook’s husband). From the deadpan opener, “Times Are Tough in Rock ’n’ Roll,” to the gentle cover of Lou Reed and John Cale’s “Sunday Morning,” Crowell puts Cook’s slightly sardonic and unreadable vocals into settings that honor old-time conventions, yet are more than passing strange for a 2007 country record.

“We did it very quickly,” Crowell says. “We set up for three days in the studio with a really good band, a really enthusiastic group of collaborators. I think Tim Carroll’s contributions were important. He brings a little punk to it, just a little sprinklin’ of punk attitude.”

“Times Are Tough in Rock ’n’ Roll” chugs along like an early-’80s new wave tune, complete with Jew’s harp and a funny, laconic guitar signature. “All my feelings, all my fears / Were confirmed by Britney Spears,” Cook sings, and the song sets the tone for a record that combines hick cool with something more calculated. Cook sounds smart, and very country. (Born in north-central Florida, she has lived in Nashville since 1996.) “That’s just my instrument,” she says. “It’s naturally a country-sounding instrument, the way I say my words and my vowels. But songs are just songs, you know, and they take on a different life with different instruments.”

Cook says she learned about “Sunday Morning”—the first song on 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico—from Carroll. “He’s still got shoeboxes of cassette tapes in our basement,” she says. “And I started doing it live. When it came time to make the record, I didn’t think we were gonna do it, and when we went out to the studio one Sunday morning, Rodney said, ‘Let’s start with “Sunday Morning.” ’ It was easy and laid-back and warm—it felt good over a cup of coffee.”

If “Sunday Morning” is quietly audacious, Cook and Melinda Schneider’s “Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman” sums up the record’s concerns about career, dignity, money and feminism. Throughout Balls, there are lines like, “The options are endless, it seems,” and “I’m not a has-been / I’m still a gonna-be.” “Sometimes It Takes Balls” makes struggle sound fun while suggesting fun might be a struggle. From the opening drum flourish to the gleeful aside of “big, big, big, big balls” that ends the track, it’s an instant classic, and could add some, well, balls to country radio.

Some of Balls seems merely reverent, as on “Rest Your Weary Mind,” a duet with Bobby Bare Jr. Pam Tillis’ Rhinestoned sounds similarly well-mannered upon first listening, but reveals itself as a series of meditations on time and innocence, and as a sumptuous recasting of the country-rock of Gram Parsons and The Gosdin Brothers. It’s a brilliantly sequenced set of songs that looks at success from the vantage point of someone who has seen through all the deception and emerged with a functioning sense of humor.

“When I was a teenager, there was a certain kind of country that I loved,” Tillis says. “It wasn’t my dad’s country [her father is Mel Tillis] per se; I was really lovin’ Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Dan Fogelberg, early Linda Ronstadt. It was this California country-rock thing.”

Rhinestoned bears this out: as was Parsons, Tillis is adept at creating an almost mythological dimension that floats above the surface of her songs. Using musicians such as guitarist Bryan Sutton and steel player Dan Dugmore, she fills each track with the kind of musical detail that means as much as any artful narrative.

In contrast with early-’90s Tillis hits such as “Shake the Sugar Tree” and “Don’t Tell Me What to Do,” Rhinestoned delivers its songs unencumbered by trendy production flourishes. “We just wanted the feel to be organic, and it was a very controlled chaos,” Tillis says. She brings the kind of studio savvy that only comes with experience. “When I was younger, I wouldn’t think twice about telling somebody what to play,” she says. “As you get more mature, you realize that’s not always the smartest thing to do.”

The record’s centerpiece is Lisa Brokop and Kim McLean’s “Band in the Window,” an affectionate and beautifully rendered look at workaday musicians playing on Nashville’s Broadway, “where the streets are paved with hopeful expectations.” John Anderson cuts Tillis’ ripe, slightly burred voice with his loopy, inside-out phrasing on “Life Has Sure Changed Us Around”—the guitar part illustrates how a musician can give the illusion of disregarding form while performing at peak efficiency.

It’s delicious when Anderson and Tillis sing, “We used to put on Eat a Peach, drive around and look for trouble / Trouble wasn’t all that hard to find, ” and Rhinestoned is full of trouble, from the desolate narrator of “Something Burning Out” to the bartender who remembers a Mustang she “loved more than I ever loved the man” in “Bettin’ Money on Love.”

Like Balls, Rhinestoned gets serious about the decisions people make, yet the music itself seems almost egoless, as if any display of untoward arrogance or privilege would negate the music’s individualist message.

Of course, pulling off this kind of effortless music takes determination and conceptual know-how, and only a natural star can appear to have risen above ego in the way Tillis and Cook do here. They never come across as careerist, yet make it all sound like just another day’s work.

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