David Letterman makes a rare appearance this week on Sirius XM, co-hosting Elizabeth Cook's Apron Strings radio program alongside the country-singing host and his longtime bandleader and foil Paul Shaffer. Recorded in New York City, the show will premiere May 24th at 9:00 a.m./ET on SiriusXM's Outlaw Country station.
"We're here because I invited myself. . .and I have a hunch none of this is being recorded, but the idea is just to get out of the house," Letterman joked during the show's early moments, before kicking off an hour-long conversation with one of his most consistent guests from the Late Show's final years.
Letterman first heard Cook's radio show while making daily drives from his Connecticut home to CBS's television studio in midtown Manhattan. A known fan of roots music, he began tuning in to Outlaw Country during his commute, often catching Apron Strings in the process. That led to the discovery of Cook's own music, which earned her a debut appearance on the Late Show in 2012, during the promotional cycle for the album Welder. Years later, the two continue to be friends, swapping stories and song suggestions throughout the newest episode of Apron Strings.
Here are six things we learned from Letterman's appearance on the Apron Strings episode, which also includes archival Late Show performance clips – from artists like Willie Nelson, Steve Earle and frequent Letterman guest Warren Zevon.
Letterman has fond memories of sharing the screen – and a few jokes – with musical guest Jerry Garcia during the early Nineties.
"That night, we did a little comedy," he remembers of Garcia's appearance on the Late Show in September 1993, two weeks after Letterman made the jump from NBC to CBS. "I think it was a cold opening, where I was in the green room with Jerry Garcia. I had his guitar, and he was asking me how to play a certain – excuse the expression – Riff? Chord? Something. . .I was sitting there teaching Jerry Garcia how to play guitar, and at the time it didn't really have much meaning to me, but as the years wore on, whenever I see that, I think, 'Wow, that's delightful. What a lucky thing for me to have had.'"
Paul Shaffer deserves much credit for expanding Letterman's musical tastes. . .although the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band helped solidify his love for outlaw country.
"Paul became my window to a wide variety of music," Letterman says, crediting his sidekick with bringing an artsy, left-of-center bent to the Late Show's musical programming. When it comes to country music, the host's tastes were shaped by Jeff Hanna and company.
"The breakthrough for me," he explains, "was the record Will the Circle be Unbroken. I remember it was produced by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who were managed by Steve Martin's manger. I started listening to that, and I was particularly taken by the emoting of some of those early American folk songs [and] Maybelle Carter. And then when you get to 'Will the Circle be Unbroken,' you're on your knees in tears. I also like the story [about] Bill Monroe, who was the king of bluegrass, if not the man who invented it. They wanted him desperately to be on the album. And he said, 'No, I'm not gonna play with those dirty hippies.'"
Elizabeth Cook still has a bottle of moonshine from her father's days as an illegal distillery supervisor.
"They were selling it on a mass level and it was not being taxed," she tells Letterman of her dad's booze business. "It was the crack of the day. It was like crack cocaine." With illicit sales taking place up and down the eastern seaboard, the moonshine gig eventually landed Mr. Cook behind bars, where he played in the prison band and eventually learned to weld. Years later, the last batch of his felonious 'shine sits upon his daughter's shelf in Nashville. "I still have some of his moonshine in a jar," she admits. "It's just commemorative. It's nasty. You don't wanna drink that."
Warren Zevon gifted his guitar to Letterman after his final performance on the Late Show.
Zevon made dozens of appearances on Letterman's late-night program, often filling in for Paul Shaffer whenever the music director left town on family trips. His final performance was on October 30th, 2002, after the singer had been diagnosed with a fatal, inoperable form of lung cancer. The broadcast was intensely emotional, but for Letterman, the real waterworks arrived after the cameras shut off.
"After the show," Letterman remembers, "I'm up in his dressing room, and he's putting his guitar away. He used the same guitar for every show he did for us. So while we're talking – and it's a difficult conversation to have with a man you know will soon be dead – I'm saying, 'Jesus, Warren, I just really love your music.' And now I'm starting to get teary. And he's putting [the guitar] away, putting it up in the case, and he said, 'Here you go; take care of her.' And he gave me the guitar."
Letterman's favorite live performance of all time included both Paul Shaffer and Elizabeth Cook, but didn't occur on his own show.
"The single best live musical performance I've ever heard was in New Orleans at the Preservation Jazz Hall at a show Paul put together," says Letterman, who remembers feeling crushed when the front-of-house sound engineer admitted that no one was recording the concert. A tribute to Allen Toussaint, the show featured cameos by Cook, the Wild Magnolias and a group of Mardi Gras chiefs.
Cook's recommendation for not being an asshole? Love music.
"Discussing music and its importance to Dave and Paul. . .[is] something I wanted to try and get across here," Cook says at the end of the episode, after playing a handful of live tracks from the Late Show's rootsier acts. "Music doesn't resonate with all people, and there's a little bit of a sociopathic thing when it doesn't. I think it means you're not an asshole when you love music."