Elizabeth Cook has been the hippie hillbilly queen of East Nashville's Americana community for more than a decade. With an accent rooted in rural Florida and a small-town backstory that's equal parts tragic and picturesque, she's the real deal – a genuine country girl who loves the genre and the lifestyle, but has no interest in playing by Music Row's rules.
As this week's guest on Walking the Floor, she talks to host Chris Shiflett about the unpredictable path that took her from the Bible Belt back country to the Grand Ole Opry stage. We've rounded up some highlights below, from her first conversation with David Letterman – the late-night TV host whose approval helped open up a string of doors – to the medication that inspired the trippy, riff-based songs on her newest album, Exodus of Venus.
Cook isn't a member of the Grand Ole Opry … but she is the program's most consistent guest.
"I believe I hold the record for the most appearances by a non-member of the Grand Ole Opry," says Cook, who recently dedicated her Opry performance of "Southern Accents" to the late Tom Petty. "It's not the record you really want, but it's the one I've got. I'll take it." Her time with the show began in 2000, when Cook was signed to the Nashville wing of Atlantic Records. The label wouldn't fork over the finances for a big tour until she scored a hit song, so Cook spent most of her time in Nashville, waiting for the single that never really arrived. "I was stuck at home all the time," she says. "The Opry caught wind of that, and they knew I was somebody they could call who would come out and sing a song with the staff band." Since then, she's racked up more than 400 appearances on the show.
David Letterman has pretty great taste in music.
"He's a deep music fan in general," she says of her friend, who invited her on his show in 2012, having become a fan of her SiriusXM program Elizabeth Cook's Apron Strings. "[He likes] everything from the Grateful Dead to Guy Clark. Nancy Griffith, he always loved a lot, [too]."
Her first Letterman appearance paved the way for a number of additional TV offers, some more bizarre than others.
After her first visit to Letterman's late-night show, Cook found herself receiving offers to star in her own TV sitcoms and host awards shows. "My manager described it as, 'A really good bomb went off,'" she remembers. "The next thing I knew, I had a sitcom deal with CBS. That caused me to start spending a lot of time in LA, 'cause there's a ceiling on being an Americana star… " Although the sitcom never wound up being filmed, the pilot was written by one of the screenwriters from Roseanne. "It was me as a single mom in an apartment in Washington, D.C.," she says of the show's plot, "and then my daddy — my old, old cracker daddy — shows up out of jail, causing mayhem, and I have problems at work, and that kind of thing."
Her time on a major label's roster was brief.
"I was signed to Atlantic Records by a guy who was president of Atlantic Nashville for 30 minutes, and wanted to try and inject some kind of traditional country wave back into [the mainstream]," says Cook, who kicked off her career as a major-label country singer. "I got signed under that. Atlantic folded in the Time Warner/AOL merger. Warner Bros got my contract. They were instructed to leave me alone until the record was finished, which they took great pleasure in being able to do that. I was one less responsibility." At the time, country singers like Faith Hill were ruling the charts, and Warner – whose roster included Hill – hoped Cook would follow in a similarly mainstream-friendly direction. She didn't. "It was just a bad fit," she explains. "I couldn't sing like that. I couldn't write like that. I'm just not good at it … It was the height of Faith Hill and Shania Twain, and no one was ready for a Tammy Wynette throwback."
There's a new album in the works, with songs that build a bridge between Cook's countrified past and the trippy songs on her most recent release.
"We said that Exodus was gonna be a country-funk record," says Cook, who's already begun writing songs for a follow-up album. "Hilarious! Not even close. So I can predict what I think this [new album] is gonna be, and that's definitely what it won't be, then. But I feel like it might be some sort of marriage between what Welder was and what Exodus was, in that it's going to be a little bit of a shaper, folk narrative-sounding voice, but with more of that spacey soundscape. I kind wanna stay in that trippy ethereal zone, but be a little more present. That's my ideal."