In early April, critically acclaimed Americana recording artist and popular satellite radio disk jockey Elizabeth Cook is relaxing on the sofa in the sunlit living room of her East Nashville home. Cook, who is sharing a cup of coffee with a visitor, has just returned from a business trip to Los Angeles.
“It’s an exciting town,” she says. “But it’s a working town, everybody’s working all the time, and there’s a ton of opportunity; as to where Nashville is so small it feels like much more of an insider’s game here. So, it’s really fun to step into it out there.
“I love my home here,” she adds, “but I love the energy of L.A.”
The neo-country songstress has made several trips to L.A. in recent months which have resulted in representation by the Paradigm agency in Beverly Hills and deals with several television production companies and a major network. She has read for some sitcoms, and there even has been discussion of her hosting a talk show.
“Something, somehow, somewhere will hopefully manifest itself in the form of television,” she says and laughs. “But I don’t know what it’s going to be yet.
“What’s important to me about my Hollywood opportunities is that I really don’t want to do something that just cops out, I really don’t,” she continues. “I may find I have to a little bit to get the access I need to do something a little weightier like Louie on FX, which is an important show to me.”
“It’s difficult, apparently, for there to be complicated women on TV — complicated in that she is going to look this way, but say something from this perspective, sounding like this,” she explains. “All the women in sitcoms it seems are just one-dimensional, they’re there so men can bop around them like idiots and be funny. And they’re always the straight man. Or they’re just cracking dick jokes. “It seems to be the consensus [of her L.A. business associates] that there’s an opportunity there for somebody to represent the female set who would have a few more layers … a more fully formed character.”
That somebody, of course, could be Cook, whose slender, blonde good looks and Southern accent, half drawl and half twang, belie her sharp intelligence and her educational and business background. She isn’t at liberty to say who she has read for, but a recurring creative theme being discussed is the “fish out of water” concept featuring a country girl in the city.
“The part of it that interests me the most is the opportunity to do some acting,” says Cook, who has been working with acting coaches in Nashville and L.A.
It’s midmorning a few weeks later and Cook is holding court on Elizabeth Cook’s Apron Strings, her four-hour show on Sirius Radio Network’s Outlaw Country channel. After IDing the song which preceded the break, Cook tells her listeners about a new, expensive lotion she recently purchased called “Dead Sexy.”
“I can rub this lotion on me and I can feel men wantin’ to jump on me,” she quips.
The beautiful and talented Cook, who has never needed lotion or anything else to make men want to jump on her, long has been recognized for her prowess as a vocalist and songwriter; most recently for her critically acclaimed album, Welder, produced by rock heavyweight Don Was. The album earned Cook three 2011 Americana Music Association Honors and Awards nominations, matching rock legend Robert Plant for the most noms.
But it is her popular satellite radio show that has catapulted the natural-born comedienne from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry to the sets of late-night network talk shows — and beyond.
Although they are recorded in advance, Cook’s segments feel live and spontaneous, like a running stream-of-consciousness commentary on not only the music, but her own life, such as her thoughts on the Dead Sexy lotion she bought, or her tongue-in-cheek observation about a “mama bird” carrying “bugs and worms” back-and-forth all day long to newly hatched babies in a nest outside her window — “That’s what you get, you little slut.”
After setting up a new track from The Mavericks, she jokingly adds, “You know they have some good Cuban blow,“ a nod to lead singer Raul Malo’s ancestry. Later, she refers to Lorrie Morgan as “a hot piece of country ass.” She introduces a collaboration between Jack White and Tom Jones on the Willie Dixon classic “Evil” with a description of the two men — White with black shirt buttoned to the neck and pale skin contrasted by Jones with white blouse open to the waist revealing “oiled and tanned” skin and gold chains. She concludes the intro by saying “but they settled their fashion differences” in time to record the song. Cook shares new recipes and even makes up words, something she says she likes to do. On this morning, she combines the words projectile and trajectory to come up with “trajectile.”
“It’s pretty close to live,” she says about recording her voice tracks for the show she’s hosted for the past four years. “No more than a day out, sometimes morning of. It’s never that far out.”
When she first hosted the show, she went to Sirius’s Nashville studio every day to record her parts. But her busy touring schedule soon made that impossible, so she records her voice tracks on a laptop with a “$50 mike from Guitar Center,” then uploads to the network’s secure servers from wherever she might be.
Cook’s show attracts at least a quarter of a million listeners a day — including much to her surprise, David Letterman. After listening to the show for five months, Letterman dug Apron Strings so much he invited her to be a guest last August on Late Night With David Letterman; to sit and talk about her radio show, Welder and more. It was a big moment for the East Nashville resident and she 360-slam-dunked it.
Stylishly dressed in a long-sleeved black dress and black boots, Cook came on the set as Paul Shaffer and “The World’s Most Dangerous Band” were playing the verse from The Four Tops hit ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” that mentions “apron strings.” She had the host and his studio audience howling from the moment she sat down, regaling them with stories about her music, producing her radio show while on tour and her unusual family and upbringing.
But the signature moment came in an exchange near the end of her 15-minute appearance. After Letterman, who had been on vacation the previous week, asked Cook if she was currently on tour, she told him, “Not at the moment, … I’ve been on vacation, too.”
“Oh, good, good for you,” he said laughing, then asked, “No fatwas,” in reference to the death sentence conveyed on him the previous week by a jihadist website for making jokes about al-Qaeda leaders.
“Do what — nooooh,” Cook said, “I don’t eat that,” which left Letterman speechless and the audience roaring with laughter and applauding.
Cook followed the Letterman appearance with a guest spot on The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson in October. Prior to those two guest slots, she had never appeared on any of the late night talk shows, even as a performer.
Some high points from her appearance on Ferguson’s show:
• On what she considers hot in a man: “Well, he can’t be prettier than me, you know. And I don’t like guys who get manicures.”
• On if she likes rattlesnakes: “As accessories.”
• On if she has a bus for her band: “It’s not that sexy, it’s like minivan hell.”
Also in October, she appeared in an episode of the Adult Swim animated series Squidbillies, infamous for its twisted portrayal of life in the Appalachian Mountains of northern Georgia and featuring a family of hillbillies who are squids, a not-so-subtle metaphor for inbreeding. The show has become home to hip singer-songwriters, such as Todd Snider, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch and Jason Isbell, and celebrated Southern rockers, like Widespread Panic, Jason & The Scorchers, and Drive-By Truckers. Even the leading man, make that leading squid, Early Cuyler, is played by a musician, the incomparable Unknown Hinson.
The invitation to appear on Squidbillies came after someone from the show attended a live performance by her in Atlanta. “One day they called out of the blue and said they had a guest role, they wanted me to do an acting part, and I was thrilled,” she recalls.
Cook provided the voice for Tammi, the pregnant teenage girlfriend of the family’s teenage son, Rusty Cuyler, in an episode called “Keeping It In The Family Way.” She recorded Tammi’s parts at Blackbird studios. “We had to find a place that had the ISDN capability so they could not only get a good recording of my part, but so that the directors could be talking to me over the phone into my headphones while I was in the vocal booth, sort of coaching me along,” she explains. “So it’s an interesting process, I’d never done anything like that before. Then they contacted me to give them another version of their theme song, which was really cool, too.”
She went into the studio and recorded four versions of the show’s main theme, which features the lyrics: “My dreams are all dead and buried/Sometimes I wish the sun would just explode/When God comes and calls me to his kingdom/I’ll take all you sons of bitches when I go.”
“I did what I call a pitiful-billy, a rockabilly one and a hillbilly one, several different grooves, I gave them four versions,” she says. They used the rockabilly version to open the episode in which she appeared.
The show creators (Dave Willis, Jim Fortier) liked her performance as Tammi so much, they approached her about appearing in additional episodes. “She was great,” Willis says. “Her voice was really perfect.”
“I can confirm I’ll be appearing on Squidbillies again,” she says with a laugh. Cook has agreed to provide the voice for Tammi in future episodes.
For all the incredible highs she has experienced in the past year, Cook recently had one extremely low moment — the loss of her father, Tom Cook, who passed away in March after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Fortunately, she was able to be with him at the time of his death.
“He died in a total bear hug in mine and my sister’s arms,” she recalls. “I’m so fortunate that I came off the road when I did. I was a 24-hour-a-day nursemaid for two weeks, and it was a great comfort to him.”
Her father was released from the hospital on a Friday night a couple of weeks before his death, and on the way back to his home, he was listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. “Riding down I-40 on a stormy night with my dad in transport sitting there breathing oxygen and [Opry announcer] Eddie Stubbs comes over and talks to Daddy and says, ‘We want to wish Mr. Cook a speedy recovery and we hope to see him backstage at the Opry real soon,’” she recalls. “Then they sent a big basket to him on Monday full of Moon Pies and stuff like that — so sweet.”
Cook is quick to credit the Opry, and general manager Pete Fisher in particular, as an ongoing source of support throughout her career. “The Opry — the continuum of having that outlet through the whole thing has been very quietly, in an understated way, but absolutely the strongest thread — it gave me a platform to sing,” she says.
“I couldn’t come out and do the current hit of the day because it wasn’t me, so I’d do an old country song, or do a Jessi Colter song or something the Opry audience understood that I also thought was cool.”
Cook hits the road again in May for a couple of months of dates with her band, which includes her husband, singersongwriter- guitarist Tim Carroll. On June 7, Cook and company will be back in Nashville for a headlining date at The Station Inn. Then after two nights in New York City at City Winery on June 11-12, she will return to Late Night With David Letterman on June 13 as the musical guest.
“It’s a perplexing time for me, it’s not easy,” she says of the whirlwind of attention surrounding her at this moment in her life. “I’m very excited and feel like Alice in Wonderland when I get a phone call and it’s David Letterman when my dad was dying calling to check on me.”
Even if Cook ends up with a house in the Hollywood Hills, she envisions continuing to live in East Nashville. “I think so, yeah, I don’t see that changing,” she says and laughs. “At least part-time, which it’s part-time now anyway, you know. We’re on the road all the time and when I’m off the road, I’m in L.A. a lot.
“But I love coming home,” she continues. “I have all my haunts and shops here, and it just keeps getting better. I love my yard and my house, and it’s where my friends are. I love East Nashville.”