There’s a steel guitar solo on Elizabeth Cook’s new album Aftermath that sounds like no steel guitar you’ve heard before. Snaking and shimmering rather than twangy and weepy, the solo on “Perfect Girls of Pop,” played through a flanger pedal, is more Giorgio Moroder than George Jones. It’s only 30 seconds in length, but that brief transcendent journey drives home the point that this LP — Cook’s sixth — is far from the traditional country music of her past.
In fairness, the Wildwood, Florida, native, who released a 2002 major-label debut titled Hey Y’all, took a bold step away from Nashville sounds on 2016’s Exodus of Venus, a collection of edgy blues-rock and atmospheric ballads. But Cook, with her distinctly Southern voice and homespun lyricism, remains closely associated with the genre. She’s a favorite of matriarchs like Tanya Tucker and Carlene Carter, performed on the Grand Ole Opry some 400-odd times (more than any non-member), and is a literal voice of Outlaw Country as a SiriusXM DJ.
On Aftermath, however, she’s a rock star.
Cook recorded the album with producer Butch Walker, backed by her own band Gravy, at his Santa Monica, California, studio. Known for his work with Green Day and Fall Out Boy, Walker helped Cook craft an intricate, grand record worthy of the David Bowie jumpsuits she wears onstage.
“I was in a position to make a record with some producers who are very successful right now, in terms of popularity in the industry, and I couldn’t get comfortable. It wasn’t what I was looking to do with these songs,” says Cook, calling from her home in Nashville. After lamenting her situation to a friend, the musician Aaron Lee Tasjan, he suggested she contact Walker. Cook sent him a message on Instagram.
A regular listener to Cook’s freewheeling SiriusXM program, Walker was already a fan. “I listen to her Apron Strings show all the time and I fell in love with this girl from afar,” he tells Rolling Stone. “She’s a magnet. I find that to be a very important factor when working with somebody and making a record. When she sits down and plays you her music and tells you her stories — and a lot of these are based on her upbringing — it’s fascinating and awesome. There’s a lot of depth to somebody who has lived that kind of life. And living to tell that is a feat for some. She’s done it.”
Getting to this point was far from easy. Cook’s relationship with her parents — both of them amateur singers — was her most cherished bond, and remains her motivation for getting through each day. In 2008, she lost her mother Joyce, and in 2012, Cook weathered an unconscionable string of deaths in quick succession, including that of her father, Thomas. She was 40 at the time and, despite having 10 half-siblings, felt alone and adrift.
“I love my parents so much and we were all so close my entire life. But they had me late in life and there was always this looming elephant in the room of knowing that they would pass when I was still relatively young,” she says. “Any time that I’ve had mental health challenges and was on some bad psych meds that gave me suicidal ideations and compulsions and stuff, the one thing that really staved that off was not wanting my parents to feel like they’ve failed.”
Cook attempted to process some of that grief on Exodus of Venus, but realizes now that not enough time had passed to properly heal (“I’m still looking back and going, ‘What the fuck?'”). She revisits the process on Aftermath, a record she describes as “a broader vantage point on everything that I’ve been through.”
Opening track “Bones” is the daughter paying tribute to mother and father, albeit in the most Elizabeth Cook of ways. “I wear your bones around my neck/I am the keeper of the flame,” howls Cook, who in fact wears the ashes of her parents on a chain. In the song’s music video, she struts through a post-apocalyptic landscape wielding a baseball bat.
She’s more tender on “Daddy, I Got Love for You” but no less irreverent, singing about a father with “stage 4 cancer, a chew of tobacco and all the answers.” In the love-triangle opus “Stanley By God Terry,” she revels in wordplay. Cook is fond of pairing current phrases with an old-school allusion, like “Carol came in hot on Hennessy.” In the magnificently woozy “Bayonette,” she goes “dancing downtown with a can of mace/and a piñata in the shape of your face.”
But keeping Aftermath to a manageable length required the verbose Cook to edit. Walker challenged her to cut verses that didn’t advance her story from tracks like “These Days,” freeing up space for the producer to add what Cook calls his “sonic flourishes.” Like the drum-machine skeleton of “Bad Decisions” and the distorted percussion effects in “Perfect Girls of Pop,” the song with that flag-planting steel solo played by Gravy member Whit Wright. Gravy guitarist Andrew Leahey gives the track its jangly feel, playing R.E.M.-like guitar arpeggios, which Walker doubled on an acoustic 12-string. Leahey and bassist Steve Duerst also joined Cook and Walker in recording the song’s lush background harmonies.
“The vibe on this record was Sticky Fingers Stones and Eighties Tom Petty,” Walker says. “Big timpani hits and bringing the Pet Sounds era into play on her record was fun. And she wanted that. It wasn’t, ‘Let’s make a stripped-down, lo-fi [album].’ That shit’s been done to death.”
To Cook, Aftermath is an album of precision. Whether she was painstakingly rewriting a lyric or working with Walker and drummer Herschel Van Dyke to find just the right beat, nothing was inconsequential.
“Every single detail matters,” she says.
Which isn’t to say Cook is an over-planner. She only gets creative when the spirit moves her, whether it’s hosting her new fishing/interview series on the Circle TV network (“We talk and drink and then people edit it”), writing (currently, she’s not), or touring (she’s happy to not be doing this interview “from a truck stop right now”).
“I had a therapist tell me once that I resent the obligation to perform,” she laughs. “I don’t resent performing, but I resent the obligation.”
On the restorative Aftermath, she fulfills an obligation to herself, whether she meant to or not.