Elizabeth Cook is the kind of country singer that folks don’t know quite what to do with these days. On one hand, she’s a pretty blonde with a sunny, twangy voice and a knack for writing hyper-catchy songs, so she would appear to be a lock for the Nashville big time, alongside starlets like Miranda Lambert and Jewel. On the other hand, Cook carries an uncompromising ornery streak. This is, after all, the gal who titled her last album Balls, as in “Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman”. That song’s hook alluded to “Stand By Your Man”, another indication that Cook is far less interested in joining the current crop of hit-country darlings than in embodying both the good-hearted women and the good-timin’ men of country-music yesteryear.
Cook is a master of classic-country idioms; by the time she released her major-label debut in 2002, she was already a mainstay on the Grand Ole Opry, and she continues to demonstrate her taste and knowledge of the forms on her Sirius radio show, “Elizabeth Cook’s Apron Strings”. Her own music, though, dances the line between accessible modern country and traditionalist reverence about as well as anyone in the game these days. And like Hall-of-Famers like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, Cook delivers her honky-tonk with a healthy dose of humor. With one elbow on the bar and one elbow in your ribs, Cook is one fun gal, which might not win you over if she didn’t write such great songs.
Welder (her father was one) is her strongest set of songs yet, and the record is given a silky polish by producer Don Was, his first collaboration with Cook. Was has become one of Americana’s most reliable sonic ambassadors, helping craft comeback albums for legends like Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, and the fact that Was, along with Buddy Miller and Rodney Crowell and Dwight Yoakam, who all show up on the record, are eager to work with Cook is another indication of her rising stock.
At times, Cook lays the country drawl on so thick, you’d thick it has to be a put on, especially since she turns off the twang when the song calls for it. But that’s one of Cook’s gifts, the ability to shape-shift into all of your legendary country queens; she’ll be your Dolly, your Lucinda, your Barbara Mandrell, and your Minnie Pearl. On acoustic mountain-stomp of opener “All the Time”, for instance, she sings like Elly May Clampett. Next, Cook talks tough-girl trash over the greasy, junkyard groove of “El Camino”. Then, she shows off yet another side, singing in a straight mellifluous voice on the mainstream ballad “Not California” as moonlight guitars slow dance with a lonely harmonica. So goes Welder, and it’s a fluctuating mix that works due to the unremitting strength of the material.
One thing that sets Cook apart is her caustic, sometimes bawdy, sense of humor, and her lyrics alone would keep some of these tunes from hitting country radio, catchy-as-hell though they are. Take “Yes to Booty”, for instance, a semi-satirical take on classic Gilley’s-bar country, complete with a group-hollerin’ chorus and beer-bottle clinks; it’s an update of Loretta’s “Don’t Come Home a’ Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)”: “When you say yes to beer/You say no to booty”, Cook warns, adding, “If you’ve slept with a drunk man/you understand it’s not that hard”.
“El Camino” is Cook at her funniest, telling a sordid tale about falling for a guy who drives a “1972 refurb” and wears “shirts that are tripping on LSD”. Cook has no problem writing and singing lyrics (“perv”, “funky-ass”) that Carrie Underwood has to leave on the bus. Cook, though, goes all the way, mixing the romantic with the real and finding priceless rhymes like “If I wake up married, I’ll have to annul it/Right now my hands are in his mullet”. Elsewhere, Cook reminds us that Snakes on a Plane is just a silly fantasy, but “Snake in the Bed” is a genuine hillbilly fear (and the catchiest country lark you’ll hear all year).
Welder is not all fun and games, however. Cook can paint narratives with rich detail, as in the fatalistic melancholy of “Heroin Addict Sister” or the nostalgic idyll of “Mama’s Funeral”. Moreover, Cook can write highly effective love songs, particularly those that pinpoint the dust that sometimes settles: “Honey I know that I’m just your wife/But I wanna be your girlfriend tonight”. This kind of yearning recurs on Welder; toward the end of “Not California”, the song builds to a string-laden coda as Cook pleads, “I’m the one who wants to be the one you’re with tonight”. You’ll want to say yes.