Veteran Alt-Country Singer-Songwriter Elizabeth Cook Delivers Compelling Collection of Personal Songs

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JIM MCGUIRE
  • Jim McGuire
Given that country outlaws tend to be men (think Willie and Waylon and Merle), it’s refreshing to see singer-songwriter Elizabeth Cook garner some attention. She’s cut from the same musical cloth. With her new album, Exodus of Venus, she delivers another collection of personal songs.

This time, they document the tumultuous past six years of life. The tracks reference deaths, a divorce and personal hardships, including a battle with addiction.

Cook, who’s performed at the Grand Ole Opry over 400 times, hosts her own Sirius XM show on the Outlaw Country station and has worked with everyone from Jason Isbell to Steve Earle and John Prine.

She formed her first band when she was only 9.

“My parents were both musicians,” she says via phone from her Nashville home. “They played a lot of bars. My dad quit drinking, so it wasn’t good for them to be in bars anymore but they still loved music so they kind of made a project out of me. I was horrified. I was young and not naturally inclined to be showy. It’s not my personality. I’m more shy than that. It was tough, but as a kid, you do what your parents tell you. They’re the people who are feeding you and keeping you alive. I learned a lot from it, though. It was training, for sure.”

Born in Florida, she moved to Nashville in 1996 and graduated from college with a degree in accounting. She took a job as an accountant, but living in Nashville, she was “surrounded by music” and subsequently started songwriting. She quickly got a publishing deal.

By the time she released 2010’s Welder, her career had started to take off.

“It was a turning point for me creatively,” she says of the album. “[Producer] Don Was had a lot to do with protecting me and letting me come into the studio and do the songs that I wanted to do the way I wanted to do them. I think we came out with a really pure record. Right about that time was when I went on David Letterman. We got a lot of TV deals. That was a big distraction. And then on the heels of that, a lot of tragedy started happening in my family and it’s taken a long time for me to get back on my feet.”

Those tragedies inspired Exodus of Venus. Right from the opening notes of the title track, which commences with an indistinguishable hum before twangy guitars and Cook’s gravelly vocals enter the mix. 

“It’s a mass exit," she says when asked about the song's meaning. "It’s a seismic shift in life and a massive change. The title is about that. It’s an astronomical and astrological and biblical event. The theory is that when Venus passed through the earth’s atmosphere, it passed through too close, causing what is described in the book of Exodus. I correlated that with an being in a new romance. Those [aforementioned] experiences have changed my disposition. I’ve been shielded from tragedy for a long time. Once I wasn’t anymore, of course, it changed my experience and my perspective and that affects how I write."

While the songs all feature bass, guitars and drums (courtesy of an all-star band that includes guitarist Dexter Green, bassist Willie Weeks and drummer Matt Chamberlain), organ drives many of the tunes.

“That’s something new for me,” she says. “We just wanted great players. One of the great players who is in our psyche right now is Ralph Lofton. He lives north of town. He’s primarily a church guy but we wanted to bring him in. He loves to play. He just played the whole time. That’s why it’s so strongly represented on the record. My producer Dexter Green knows him and had used him on records before. It was super fun to bring him with [bassist] Willie Weeks and [drummer] Matt Chamberlain, who had never met. It was fun and inspiring for both me and Dexter.”

She started to write “Evacuation,” a tune about Hurricane Katrina, years ago but only recently finished the tune.

“I wrote it years after the fact,” she says. “I filed away a story about a woman who was told to evacuate and she dug in her heels. It’s sort of like a I’m not going anywhere type of thing. It’s a fight or flight type of moment.”

“Straitjacket Love” has a real swagger to it and shows off Cook’s bellowing voice.

“I have deep hillbilly singer roots via my mother from West Virginia,” she says. “I love to sing that way. I don’t know why I wrote it that way in terms of the tempo change. It just seemed to make sense. I would explain and set it up and there’s an urgency to get what you need and so the tempo changes.”

She says the live show, which will feature her with a four-piece band, will mostly focus on tunes from Exodus of Venus.

“The songs on the record are mid-tempo, but they have deep tones and kind of aggressive guitar,” she says.

And has she started thinking about the next album?

"I’m thinking about it, just thinking about it," she says. 

One thing's for certain — the songs will be highly personal. 

"That’s just my approach," she says. "That’s how I know how to do it. I have to get a little bit of life under my belt before I do it again."

Elizabeth Cook, Derek Hoke, 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 6, Beachland Tavern, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $17, beachlandballroom.com.


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