Elizabeth Cook,
(31 Records, 2010)

Elizabeth Cook's country credentials are impeccable, and not just because her father once served time in the federal penitentiary for running moonshine. A Florida native, she possesses the vocal chops of a bluegrass singer or a hard-core country vocalist. Not incidentally, she is a strikingly beautiful blonde.

Which has not made her a country star, though she did have a short run on a major label. Nothing daring has come out of the Nashville mainstream in years, and Cook is nothing if not daring, a hillbilly performer perfectly comfortable with state-of-the-art guitar rock (as witness her choice in producer, pop veteran Don Was). Of course, you could have said the same of the late Waylon Jennings (whom Was produced in Jennings's post-stardom career), and Dwight Yoakam (who makes an appearance on Welder) still knocks out splendid rockin' country records from his home in Los Angeles, though no longer from the spotlight.

The sad truth is that Nashville rebels don't get played on what passes for country radio these days. Cook's sound now comes out of East Nashville, across the Cumberland River from Music Row, where music, as likely to be in rock, blues or folk flavors as in country, is fashioned mostly away from commercial pressures. (For a sampling, there's East Nashville, Vol. 3, which I reviewed in this space on 8 May 2010.)

She name-checks the Grateful Dead and "Elvis but only in the Sun years" in her own "Rock 'n' Roll Man," but she also covers Frankie Miller's "Blackland Farmer," which has a way of showing up on country and folk recordings every few months or so, decades after Miller ran it up the charts. The blunt sexuality of songs like "Yes to Booty," "Girlfriend Tonight" and "Snake in the Bed" defies the puerile piety that the always hypocritical Music City pretends guides it. It's hard to imagine a mainstream embrace of "Heroin Addict Sister," and that's not the title character's only sin.

These are among, albeit not all, the reasons Cook, whose country is located somewhere between Loretta Lynn and Lucinda Williams, is worth hearing. The songs on Welder are in good part her own; a few are co-writes, and there's the occasional cover, including two by her husband, singer-songwriter Tim Carroll. By any strict genre standard the CD is stylistically all over the place, probably to the degree that no single listener, including me, is going to be crazy about everything. For some who worry too much about these things, Cook will be in the proverbial hard place: too country for rock, too rock for country. If you incline to that sentiment, try to get over it. Cook is an original, and not only that, she's good at it.

If Welder isn't quite like anything else you'll hear this year, what's wrong with that?

music review by
Jerome Clark

31 July 2010

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