Elizabeth Cook has logged more than 400 performances on the Grand Ole Opry, sat in on a handful of howlingly funny chats with David Letterman during the final years of his CBS Late Show run, snagged a long-running stint as host of her own freewheeling radio show (Apron Strings on Sirius XM's Outlaw Country channel), and done a guest voice-over gig on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim animated series Squidbillies. But one thing the Central Florida native hadn't done in the last six years was release a new album. Instead, she spent much of that time navigating — and ultimately emerging from — a personal minefield that left divorce, rehab, a house fire and more than a few deaths of loved ones in its wake.
Unapologetically country from her 2002 major-label debut, Hey Y'all, through the more offbeat Balls and 2010's Welder, Cook's country pedigree and her Dolly Parton-inspired twang have remained two of her most striking musical characteristics. But what the Opry, and Cook's more ardent "country" listeners will think of Album Number Five, the magnificently entertaining Exodus of Venus, remains to be seen.
Produced by Dexter Green, and featuring songs penned with the man she calls a "gentle-giant genius" (she also calls him her boyfriend), Exodus of Venus responds to tough life lessons with dark humor. Even so, the lighter moments are tempered with harsh observations of her new reality, which includes the collapse of her marriage to musician Tim Carroll, the diagnosis of a chemical imbalance in her brain, and the residual effects of a fire at her family's homestead — along with the 2012 death of her father and the loss of other close family members (her mother, a singer from West Virginia, died in 2008). There were seismic shifts on the business front, too, as she cut ties with her manager and agent.
"Everything's different, everything's new," Cook tells Rolling Stone Country. "How can the record not be different? I'm on a different planet than I was six years ago."
Rather than revisiting all that tragedy and upheaval, Exodus of Venus finds Cook learning new ways to express herself. And although the songs may have a harder edge than ever before, in conversation Cook can still toss out witty quips that'll take your breath away. Yet, while recalling the harrowing after-effects of a notorious missing-child case that continues to haunt Nashville residents 13 years later, she lets her guard down with a few unexpected tears. That's when shit suddenly gets real. The song that addresses that event, the absolutely devastating "Tabitha Tuders' Mama," cuts a little too close to home for the singer, whose upbringing was fraught with the effects of her father's alcoholism and his eventual prison sentence.
Bemused now by the rumors surrounding her relationship with singer-songwriter and close friend Todd Snider, she was stunned when her management at the time strongly urged her to go to rehab instead of embarking on a planned tour with him. Insistent as she is that drug addiction was not an issue at the root of her rehab stint, once she emerged from the facility, the songs starting taking shape, including the non-autobiographical "Methadone Blues." The record melds Green's fierce production with Cook's raw vocals (think Sinead O'Connor and Little Feat meet Loretta Lynn high on an Appalachian mountaintop). Cook sat down with Rolling Stone Country recently to talk about her new album, the shocking realities of the rehab experience and how musician friends, including Wynonna, bring out her inner Secret Service agent.
What was going through your mind when rehab was first suggested to you?
I needed some help. I was fortunate enough to have people around me that were trying to figure out how to do that. I did not feel like rehab was what I needed and I tried desperately to convince some key people around me that in that moment I needed intensive therapy and I probably need medication. There's a lot of layers to peel off here. I need to get on that tour bus with Todd and go get steeped back in music again. Because that's what Todd and I do together. That was not the perception of what Todd and I do together. I think people just think we freebase and fuck all day. Todd inspires me greatly and is a very serious mentor to me. I was getting ready to get on a tour bus and go, and it was my nut for the rest of the year, to take financial pressure off me after a very expensive divorce. Then they cancelled the tour and said, "You can't go, because we don't trust in the state that you're in. You're saying that you're not addicted to anything and you're saying you don't have an eating disorder, but we don't know that."
"I wasn't addicted to anything. I knew I didn't have an eating disorder"
How did you respond to that?
I was like, "I've got enough pride that I will tell you exactly what I'm doing. I don't have great excuses for it, and that won't make it right, but I'll tell you. I'll be straight: I'm doing this drug, this drug, this drug." But I wasn't doing any of that. I wasn't addicted to anything. I knew I didn't have an eating disorder. I was just skinny from being stressed out. But people in positions of power in my life didn't believe me. There was really nothing else for me to do. I was tired and I knew that there would be some facets of help from a rehab experience that I could probably take, so I should probably just have an open mind and go in there and do it.
When I got there, it was, "Turn over your razors, your sunglasses, your toothpaste has baking soda and we don't know what you'd use that for." They weighed you in the dark. You can have two packs of sugar a day with your Jell-O snack. I don't even eat sugar. They regimented my calories, but my body went on a severe calorie uptake. I was starving all the time and I begged for protein shakes in between meals and they wouldn't have them at the nurse's station. I was losing more weight. It was a wacky experience. I look back on it and laugh now at the cast of characters I met. I could write a sitcom around rehab from the people that I was in there with. You bond, because we're all in dire straits. [Laughs]
Did you have an Oprah 'a-ha!' moment?
Yeah, I think I had a couple of 24-hour periods that were spiritual awakenings, that were super-intense and super-enlightening, where a lot of things came together like a magnet and then information came to that magnet and organized. It helped me decipher some things. Then, to the extent that you can even be diagnosed for anything chemical with your brain, get a structure of understanding for what I have.
Which is… ?
A personality disorder that's pre-bipolar and a precursor to manic depression. It's about finding the right medication, which is a dragon's tail you're always chasing. It ebbs and flows. I'm sort of coming to accept that and understand that and go on that journey, and try to — within that — pick up pieces of life. How is that going to look without my husband, without family, without the same touring band I've had for six years? Without the same management, the same agent? Without the same house and without the same pets? I don't even have the same dentist. My hope is that what is consistent is the transparency. That's my brand, which frustrates marketing people because it doesn't always sound the same. But neither does Neil Young.
You've tapped into some very different musical influences on this record. There's a bit of Sinead O'Connor, some Fiona Apple.
Yes, you hit the nail right on the head. Tori Amos is in there, too. I can only spend so many years of my life filtering Dolly [Parton] and Loretta [Lynn]. I love that music and it's still in there. I felt like there was this phase that led into Balls and Welder, where I dug deeper and came to know Nanci Griffith, Lucinda Williams, Julie Miller. It's a circle to me, because I saw Sinead O'Connor doing a cover of Loretta Lynn's "Success" on Saturday Night Live. Things came together for me when that happened.
What did working with Dexter Green bring to the sound of the record?
We got together romantically first and said we weren't going to work together. He was finishing up other records throughout that time, and I saw what he was doing with these other artists. I was like, "I want you to do that with me." He doesn't come in and put his stamp. He truly is like a very, very tasteful interpreter of wherever an artist is. His taste and execution are amazing. He went to Manhattan School of Jazz. He's a jazz guy, he can play anything. It's all about tone to him. I've never had that type of attention put into the musicality of a record.
In terms of how you shaped the record lyrically, did you do anything markedly different from the way you had written before?
Yes. There are three songs I wrote by myself: "Methadone Blues," "Tabitha Tudors' Mama" and "Straightjacket Love." Grueling edits and rewrites that I've never done before. I've always kept it pretty simple and straightforward and off-the-cuff. It always just rolls off pretty easy. But I really hunkered down on every line on these and it just wouldn't let go until I had every section just really polished. So, there are nine versions of "Methadone Blues" before I finished that song. That happened with "Tabitha Tuders' Mama" as well. Dexter would just stand up next to me in the house with a guitar strapped around his neck and start playing something and I would start singing something. Like "Slow Pain," for example. [The music] would say something to me that was in me that needed to be said. That was easy and fun because it wasn't all on me.
What was it about the Tabitha Tuders case [in 2003, the 13-year-old disappeared while on the way to school] that touched you and made you want to write about it?
I think that I got so enamored of the case for a few different reasons. One was it happened in my neighborhood. The second was it was a poor family, and I felt that impacted the attention that the case got out of the gate. I felt like that was unjust. It felt instinctive to me to want to stamp my feet about it a little bit more. These are poor people. This girl isn't a blonde that plays polo on a horse in Colorado, so it's not a national tragedy. They're poor, blue-collar people in East Nashville, therefore, there are probably shady characters around her, and there definitely were. Therefore, "they got what was coming to them because that's how they live."
All of that made me feel like what that must feel like for her mother. How do you not get bitter over that? Knowing that if my child was in beauty pageants and we lived in Brentwood [an affluent suburb of Nashville], this would be a national tragedy. But because she was a tomboy and we live in this little house and I work in a cafeteria, the brother's been arrested for human trafficking... Third: That was probably my mother's greatest fear, that that would happen to us, and had it happened to us we would have been in a similar situation. A guy did try to abduct me when I was 11. He was in a car and he sort of pulled me off the road when I was on my little bicycle. He tried to start taking to me and when I realized that the conversation was getting weird and inappropriate I jumped off my bike and started running. I ran for my life.
Do you think you would have been able to do a song like that before now?
There's always been an element of stepping out of myself for a minute and thinking of someone else's perspective and writing to that. It took a long time to figure out what specifically to say because it's such a delicate and serious thing. It's been a poem that's been in the works for a long time. Every time an article about it would come out, I'd have a section of the wall Scotch-taped with pictures, pieces of news. Things would stick with me, like seeing this one picture with ruffled curtains in it. [Pauses, choking up] It makes me cry. That was a line. Then six months later something else and that would be a line. I wanted every line to matter…
There is no mistaking Patty Loveless's voice on "Straitjacket Love." What was that like for you to have her on the song?
When we got that back and I heard her voice I was like, "This is a joke on me right now! I'm being punked so hard." It's just so crazy that I got to have that experience with her and got to hear her voice with my voice. That will never not be mind-blowing.
What inspired the song?
Getting into the relationship with Dexter and me really going through the woods and having come through a tough time trying to get myself together. That was certainly frustrating for him at times. It would be like I would know that I'm not very huggable right now but I need you to pin me down because I'm freaking out. It's the Temple Grandin of romantic affairs. [Laughs] I needed my vise grips. His arms would be the only thing that would stop me from feeling like I'm just flapping about, emotionally.
Are you generally an affectionate person, a hugger?
It depends on who it is. [Laughs] I'd say overall, yeah. There's not enough love, affection, human touch. I got that from my daddy. He used to say, "I went down to the senior center and I hugged every one of them. Some of them I didn't want to hug, some of them I hugged a real long time. But I hugged every one of them." He just believed in spreading love. I believe in that. Where it's really been affirming is coming to know artists. Women artists especially [are] just gentle lovers and nurturers. A male one would be Rodney Crowell. Lucinda Williams is a nurturer, Wynonna is a nurturer. She came to my 5 Spot show [in East Nashville] because she and Cactus [Moser, her husband] wanted to introduce me. It was insane. It was like, "How do I navigate this? Wynonna is coming to the 5 Spot." There's not even a green room there. I'm super-protective and I felt responsible for her experience. I called in my tour manager, everybody. I was like, "Alright, we're getting the purple building across the street, you secure the perimeter, clear a place for them to sit once we get them into the 5 Spot… I Secret Serviced that shit hard. I was like, "Nobody's fucking with Wynonna on my watch."
Another great supporter of yours is David Letterman, of course. Have you heard from him since his retirement?
Yeah, we're still buds! He is such a music fan. He has a lot of questions. We enjoy talking about music, talking about guitars.
Has he heard the record?
I sent it to him a week ago. He loves it. He said, "I don't know how you do that."