Hey Y’all (Warner Bros. Nashville)
Even among the faded legends, young studs and Goo-Goo Cluster hucksters, she stood out. That night at the Grand Ole Opry, as the hostess of the moment, Jeannie Seely, wrapped up her introduction, Elizabeth Cook strode into view from the wings, a vision in heels, tumbling blond tresses and flaming scarlet gown. She didn’t need a spotlight; a strobe barrage of Polaroid flashes lit her every step. Taking her place behind the WSM mic at center stage, she slipped her hollowbody electric over her shoulder, smiled into the maws of the auditorium, and chirped, “Hey, y’all!” (which just happens to be the name of Cook’s down-homey debut album, released by Warner Bros. Nashville in late August).
Seldom has a target audience been so primed for an event like this, for despite her Elly May Clampett looks and fresh appeal, the 30-year-old Cook is an Opry veteran. By this night last July, she had already played the show more than 100 times; her voice sounds like it’s been part of the program for years. On that night, when she reared back and hollered the high notes that kicked off the old Sonny James hit “Young Love,” Cook only reinforced the impression that she seemed born to another time. Southern inflections settle more in the nose than in the gut, and so it is with Cook’s twangy singing, its plangent peals a quality that falls beyond the reach of most singers her age.
As her number ended and fans poured up to the lip of the stage and Cook beamed and waved and strode back toward the wings, Seely drawled into the mic, “I forgot to tell you, Elizabeth’s a little bit country.... That’s why we like her.”
A few weeks after she sang on the Opry, I met with Cook at the office of her manager, Billy Gayne. “Please excuse the way I look,” she insists at the beginning of the interview. “You caught me in my studio grunge.”
In this case, grunge has little to do with Pearl Jam plaid; it’s more about comfortable sweats and sneakers. It is, of course, very different from the spangled finery Cook wears on the Opry. “You can never overdress there,” she laughs. “I have things in my Opry closet that I would never wear anywhere else.”
Surreal fashions are only part of the picture; for Cook, the Opry is deeply embedded in the national character. “It’s not a freak show,” she says, anticipating the 77-year-old institution’s detractors. “It’s a piece of history. It’s like being inside the History Channel when you’re backstage. These are people who are maybe past their prime, but the folks [in the audience] appreciate them and love them and want them to do what they do. It’s a beautiful place.”
But that’s not enough. Cook thinks for a second, then finds the words: “It’s the art of country music at a complete point of grace.”
If that’s what the Opry is, then that’s where Elizabeth Cook belongs. There’s lots of Loretta and Patsy, and more than a little Dolly, in Cook’s intonation; her “under the hood” line in “Dolly” would have been enough to earn her a patch in the Hee Haw cornfield. But there’s drama as well. On the album’s only cover, a Spectorian version of Jessi Colter’s “I’m Not Lisa,” Cook draws from a kind of heartland feminine strength that’s long since slipped from fashion.
Cook’s connection to such material stems from her upbringing. Raised in Wildwood, Fla., the daughter of a hard-drinking dad who did time in prison for running moonshine, she showed talent at an early age. Her mother, who sang on the radio in West Virginia when she was young, prepped Elizabeth for a career as an entertainer and had her onstage by age 4. For years, clad in cornball cowgirl costumes, Elizabeth was put through the paces at county fairs and pageants throughout the Southeast.
“I wasn’t exploited by my parents for their own gratification,” she insists, and in language that suggests she’s heard the notion before. “It was a family experience. Some families go mountain biking, some go to football games. My family played music. Of course, it got very focused on me, and toward the end of my childhood it did become commerce. But all that evolved naturally because there was something in me that might help me affect the landscape of country music one day.”
Whatever might be said about being raised as a novelty act, the experience did nothing to dampen Cook’s confidence. She quit singing at age 12, more bored than burned out by eight years of putting on shows. But after earning a degree in accounting from Georgia Southern University and staring at numbers for a short while as an auditor at Price-Waterhouse, she decided that maybe music wasn’t so bad after all. She hit that well-worn road up to Nashville, where she weathered drudge jobs during the day and slept in an empty office on Music Row at night.
During this bleak period, she poured forth a stream of original songs, including one on her album that put her expectation of success into a context of faith. Her insistence, on “God’s Got a Plan,” that “If I lost my job today, I’d find another right away,” might seem simplistic to some, but Cook’s earned it. “Hope is what separates us from a lot of other countries that are in disarray,” she says. “Someone who straps a bomb onto himself and walks into a grocery store doesn’t have any hope. I was feeling hopeless when I wrote that song, which is why I wrote it. You’ve got to find a way to hold onto that hope. And if that pisses some people off, that’s fine.”
Things took a turn for the better when Cook ran into Opry manager Pete Fisher at a Christmas party in 1999. That led to her debut on the show the following March, and to a record deal with Atlantic just a few months after that. Tectonic shifts at the label, however, suspended the release of Hey, Y’all until late this summer. Now, with a big push under way from Warner Bros., Cook is exhilarated and, she admits, frightened as well. “It’s very scary, like being on a roller coaster, and you’re riding on the clanky chain, waiting to get to the highest peak and take that big dive.”
Wherever that big dive leads, Cook expects she’ll always find a place to catch her breath at the Opry. “I hope to get to a point in my career where I can contribute as much to them as they’ve contributed to me, where I’m one of the names who can bring people in and fill those seats,” she says. “I’ve been asked if I think I’ll ever be a member of the Opry. The truth is, I have no idea. But my connection to the Opry runs way deeper than whether I’m parking in a guest space or member space. Just to be part of the show is still such a beautiful thing to me.”
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