[9 July 2012]
Somewhere between “country” and “alternative country” exists a grey area. It consists of artists who could — conceivably — go in either direction depending on the circumstances. With her latest offering, Elizabeth Cook takes a giant leap toward the “alternative” side by delving deep into the traditional Christian songbook. This is (obviously) a paradox and will require some explanation.
Cook’s songwriting thrives on emotional honesty. The results tend to be a little too raw, a little too direct for country radio. She is not alone in this, but rather one of many slightly under-the-radar musicians whose work would be virtually guaranteed a wider audience in a universe only slightly different from the one we already inhabit — that is to say, if the Nashville establishment’s standards for commercial success were a little less strict in definition, a little less uniform in practice. As it stands, some artists do cross over, building a fan base and gaining exposure through some combination of hard work and luck. Case in point: Sunny Sweeney, who charted via two singles from her second album (2011’s Concrete) without significantly compromising the artistic integrity behind her first (2007’s Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame).
Such breaks elude other artists, and for reasons that are not always entirely clear. Cook has toiled for years in Outlaw Country, cultivating an enthusiastic following among those for whom a term like “Outlaw Country” is bound to mean something. These listeners lean more to the left, delineating their tastes in contradistinction to the mainstream country so indelibly associated with Red State America in the popular awareness. I live in one such state, where indeed the type of person who would otherwise “listen to everything except country and rap” is far more likely to “listen to everything except rap”. As such, my evidence for Cook’s lack of mass acceptance is largely anecdotal. I conducted an informal survey, and no one of my acquaintance had heard of her.
The question remains, Why? To reduce the answer to a matter of gender would be almost insultingly simplistic. Granted, some country fans might balk at a song called “Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman” (one of Cook’s best), but I cannot imagine anyone I know in their 20s, 30, or 40s refusing to embrace the song on the basis of its lyrics — either their semi-profanity or their underlying proclamation of female strength. For, contrary to received wisdom, conservative listeners are not instinctively afraid of independent women. This was probably true even in pre-Miranda Lambert days. (I refuse to believe that millions of people have not heard the words to “Independence Day” these last 19 years.)
Another possible explanation involves the music itself, and that brings us back to Gospel Plow. The EP strips seven religious songs down to a rockabilly essence, Carl Perkins-style electric guitar at the forefront courtesy of Cook’s husband, Tim Carroll. Percussive handclaps open “If I Had My Way, I’d Tear This Building Down”; electric piano gives “Every Humble Knee Must Bow” an unexpected groove; church-y organ dominates “The Other Side of Life”; and bluegrass-worthy banjo turns up on “Hear Jerusalem Calling” — but the electric guitar lingers on, a subtle but insistent presence running as a unifying theme through every track, including the closing “Jesus”, a Velvet Underground cover.
As the one song on the EP whose origins do not lie in country-gospel, “Jesus” may at first strike the listener as an iconoclastic choice. This would be an incorrect assumption, however, as the track’s disarming sincerity has been transplanted wholly unchanged from the Velvets’ third LP. The repetitious simplicity of the lyrics (“Jesus, help me find my proper place / Help me in my weakness, ‘cause I’m falling out of grace”) coupled with cathartic chord changes make this Gospel Plow‘s high point, as moving as the original and a worthy companion to her beautiful 2007 cover of “Sunday Morning”. (If there is any one thing that most differentiates Cook from other country artists, outlaw or otherwise, it may be her affinity for the songwriting of Lou Reed.)
The production here is completely unvarnished. A “live-in-the-studio” feeling gives every song the quality of a first take, making Cook’s previous albums sound like Pro-Tool’d Taylor Swift creations by comparison. The instrumentation — electric guitar and acoustic bass, plus either organ or banjo or a second guitar — never feels like the product of more than three people playing at a given time, so the sound of a full “country band” — fiddles, pedal steel and rhythm section — is conspicuous by its absence. All of this helps Cook to better convey the spiritual element of these songs, as though the process of peeling back musical layers allows the artist a more direct access to her own soul. Emotionally speaking, there is not a false note on the EP.
Ultimately, Gospel Plow may prove little more than a detour (especially from a lyrical standpoint) in the greater scheme of Cook’s career. But, different as it may sound from her previous work, it is no less easy to like and admire.