VENUS IN EXILE

The emancipation of Elizabeth Cook

  • My assistant called me,” the haute hillbilly diva/songwriter says. “She said, ‘What is going on? I heard two women in line at the Belcourt talking about how you and Todd Snider ransacked the back of the Belcourt, tore it all apart and stole $3,000.”
        Cook’s voice trails off. Silence dangles, equal parts disbelief, frustration, and a bit of quiet anger about gossip that has just enough eau du truth that people can’t get enough.
        Sighing, she offers, “The truth is: I got driven to and dropped off at my boyfriend’s house. I was long gone before it supposedly even happened.”
         But for Elizabeth Cook, there was trouble. Not the obvious gacked-out, street queen kinda stuff, no matter the gossip. No, the lithe woman with long wheat-colored tresses was getting smacked around by life — and the chemicals causing trouble weren’t ingested, but brain-derived.
         She’d buried her parents. Got a divorce. Parted ways with her manager, then agent. Went to rehab — only to find substance abuse was the least of her problems. It kept stacking up, and swirling around. The normally sunny hostess of SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country’s daily wake-up show, Elizabeth Cook’s Apron Strings, felt hurled into the brink, chewed up and tossed around like a dog toy.
         “During the years when people were dying, and houses were burning down, and I was in divorce court, and David Letterman was calling, AND doing shows with Anthony Bourdain, the whiplash was almost too much,” she concedes. But there’s more than just the mere what happened.
         There’s the issue of betrayal. What people slinging gossip never think about, much less ever bother to consider whether what they’re repeating is close to the truth.
         “It felt like a massacre,” Cook recounts. “It’s strange to be written about, to be riding down the road and to see my name coming up in a Google Alert that I’m engaged or I’m still married. It would just shatter me. How do you explain it? Or understand?
         “These people have been around me, so loving and supportive. But to see them, they were poised on a dime to hate me and tear me down. ... [I] went from being beloved to being hated. It’s an occupational hazard, I guess, but it was sick.”
         She pauses, weighing her words. Then the unsinkable Elizabeth Cook does the unthinkable — she laughs and reframes her story: “But it was also a lesson in resilience.”
         More than a lesson in resilience, it was the depth charge that shook Exodus of Venus into being. For all nine kinds of hell she went through, once Cook hit the wall, she came back far stronger, clearer, and more willing. If Hey, Y’all was hard retro, Balls Dogpatched her throwback country to higher aesthetics, and Welder offered a grittier take on the Florida-born songstress’ roots attack, then Exodus drills straight into the churning essence of a woman buffeted by reality, hanging on by a chipped manicure, and ultimately, surrendering in the name of what next?
         The songs blaze with want, rage, yearning, fear, and brio. No diminutive flower, sweet and Southern though Cook may be, Exodus roars and shouts without barrier. In 11 songs, Cook takes listeners through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole of her life unraveling, more importantly reweaving it into something even finer.
         “I feel heavier,” she admits as a late Saturday afternoon quietly settles over her home. “Everything that was around me and could pose a problem in functioning with life — emotionally, mentally, my physical health — has been tested. It set me up straight. And it was hard.
        “All of it is in the record. Being able to push it out — it transforms, it really does. That’s a real lesson in resilience. There are things I couldn’t re-sing.”
         From the foreboding, almost sinister tones that are lacerated by an ominous, murky electric guitar, “Exodus of Venus” crawls toward the listener in a way that suggests “much is going to happen.” Falling into a rocking back and forth groove, Cook’s voice emerges — haunted, steeped in life, torn satin and sweet claret wine — exhorting a gospel of surrender to flesh, love, and the overwhelming.
         “Won’t you come to me,” she invites, “Hand me the bottle, come on/ Ask for forgiveness while you still can pray/ And I will lay you down, no matter what your pain is/ You can fall to pieces on some other day.”
         “If you’re going to make shit up about me,” she says, unapologetic as a double-stripe home pregnancy test, “I’d like to have some say in it! I don’t want to leave what happened open to interpretation.
         “Fun’s gone, family’s gone, marriage is gone — there’s really nothing left to lose. That’s where the reckless or the brave both say, ‘Yeah, why not?’”

    She wasn’t always so focused, or flexing such moxie. When she first cut “Methadone Blues,” which debuted to tease the album on NPR in April, the scene was anything but propulsion away from the wreckage or defining a woman rising.
         “That song I’d been writing for four years,” she marvels. “So there I was in the studio, trying to cut it, trying to prove to everyone around me I was OK and didn’t need to go to rehab. The players all had some energy left; I ran into the next room to try and finish it up.”
         In the end, she caved. In part to make people stop, in part from exhaustion, and in part not knowing what else to do. Rehab, it turns out, wasn’t what was needed; but it provided the gateway to sorting out what was really going on.
         “It was the worst blow,” she confides softly. “They stripped me of every bit of self-worth. I’m trying to tell them, ‘Hey, I’m just a simple, small town, show business entertainer. ...’ They’re like, ‘Take your sunglasses off! Give us your razors! What’s this?’ ”
         When she said “baking soda,” she received a terse, “What’s THAT for?” Her reply, “Brushing my teeth,” amused none of them; they took it, too.
         After the usual 12 Step dance, the break ’em down to build ’em up shuffle, a few things became clear. Drugs and alcohol weren’t the culprit. The woman who wrote the aching “Heroin Addict Sister” understands what rehab is for. She knew that wasn’t what she needed. Pressing them, they found the inconsistencies in her brain.
         Mental illness sounds horrible. Really, all it means is chemicals in the brain aren’t manufactured at the proper level. For Cook, all visceral detail and sensitivity, it shouldn’t be surprising. Yet, it took a stay at Detox Manor to identify.
         “The paranoia, the relationships,” she pauses, trying to find her way in. Though dramatic, Cook’s about being true instead of tabloid. “It was crippling. No one wanted to hear me, but over time they started pulling away layers and trying to figure it out. If you could see I had a broken leg that would’ve been easy. This? You couldn’t see it.
         “Part of the catastrophe was nursing people on their death bed. I was with some of these people when they took their last breath. Just because I’m able to be rationale and function, it doesn’t mean [illness is] not present.
         “It came down to acceptance of life on life’s terms,” she continues. “I’m fucked up, maybe chemically, but the other is a lack of understanding. Healing, working, trying to make sense of it — that was the road out.”
         “We were joining the Cayamo Cruise,” manager Burt Stein remembers, “and Todd (Snider) said to me, ‘I think Elizabeth’s going to need some help.’ ”
         Stein didn’t know what that meant. As an experienced manager who’s worked with Bonnie Raitt, Ronnie Milsap, Rodney Crowell, the Crickets, and Nanci Griffith, he understands the mercurial reality of artists.
         Cook was at wits’ end with business, life, music. Snider, Stein’s client and Cook’s long-standing compadre, looks out for his friends. If he is Townes Van Zant to her Susanna Clark — one of the truest, most enduring friendships of the Heartworn Highways era — he wasn’t gonna watch her drown.
         Snider explains by email: “I think (Exodus) is a master story teller at a time in her life when her story is epic and truer than ever, a la The Missing Years or Car Wheels (On A Gravel Road), that album I’m still trying to make.
         “As she would be telling me about her life these days just hanging backstage, I was thinking to myself that when she makes this rhyme, it’s going to be Car Wheels. I mighta told her that, too, cuz she was stuck for a minute.
         “I was never worried about Shug,” he continues. “She’s like the Leather Tuscadero of folk. ... If you want to knock that bitch down, you better bring a lunch.”

    As the dust settled, the songs started to come. Not a torrent, but in a flow. “I’m slow and getting slower,” she offers. “I’m really taking my time, this time. There were nine versions of ‘Methadone Blues.’ I’ve never done that before. But I love that entrenchment and dedication, I really do.”
         Part of it is eschewing her shamelessness and quippy humor. “I didn’t want anything clever,” she explains. “I wasn’t gonna be funny. I love to laugh. I love humor and being lighthearted. But that’s not where I’ve been. “There’s not been a lot to laugh about in recent years. Every song is about compassion — either requiring it, or exhibiting it — for myself, as much as anything, and from a place of experience.”
         Seven years since her last full album and four since the Gospel Plow EP, that time wasn’t spent on tension and contretemps. Living in many ways is writing; the woman who’s appeared on various compilations, collaborated on the East Nashville Tonight mini-movie, and was 2014’s Ameripolitan Music Awards Outlaw Female knows that.
         “Sometimes I don’t always have my pen on paper when I’m writing,” Cook says. “I’m not ready to force out 12 songs just because. I’m not going to make an album if they’re not ready.
         “When I had a publishing deal on Music Row, everybody’d be there at 10 a.m., standing around the coffee pot, going, ‘Martina needs a power ballad.’ Then you’d go in a room with two people to try to write. It made me sick to my stomach — and I’m terrible at it. You learn what you can’t do that way.”
         “The lesson is I’m fucked up, and love me anyway,” Cook says, vintage Ronnie Milsap T-shirt throwing light on how far back her kind of country runs. “I’m learning to apply a level of sophistication to my writing. I can go back through layers, and see how much songs can mean.”
         “Evacuation,” a brooding song that sneaks up, takes the metaphor of New Orleans’ spirit and jubilant fatalism into a dark room with a veiled mirror that reflects the once ruins of her own life. If small details conjured larger scenes and emotions in her writing, Exodus shows a leaner, more evocative voice emerging.
         Cook, who’s boasted The Whites and the Carolee Singers, Bill Anderson, and Dwight Yoakam on her records, has a strong, hard country grounding. She’s not a retrosexual looking to harvest the past, nor is she trying to make a claim about what she is.
         Still there’s no getting away from history.
         Born to a scrappy pair of folks solidly gripping the bottom rung, Cook was a fated child long before the delivering doctor slapped her bottom. Her father was 48, a sometimes country singer gadabout who sold ’shine, did time, and couldn’t make ends meet. Her mother was 42 when she had Elizabeth, and uterine cancer was discovered during the pregnancy. The two sibs who were still at home were girls 11 and 13 years older.
         “Daddy was a roaring alcoholic, and to Mama, I was this miracle child sent to heal my father. I was a princess, but the King was a monster and if everything wasn’t OK, then I was failing,” she recalls of her earliest years. “It was a very contradictory message: be strong, be brave, please us. Or be full of yourself, but don’t let us down.”
         Cook started singing at a young age in the kind of busted honky-tonks that populated outlying redneck communities around central Florida. Her mother wrote her the charming “Does My Daddy Love the Bottle More Than Me?” A cute kid in a grownup world, she watched her protectors circle the drain.
         “They used me,” she marvels, hindsight being 20/20. “I was their country music fix. I didn’t know. So much of music was to keep my daddy sober. My job was to keep everything OK. We didn’t sweep things under the rug, mind you, so much that people didn’t see it, but more so we didn’t have to look at it.”
         Her father went into the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary and came out richer than he started his sentence; largely by working in the store and running a numbers game on the price of eggs and butter. Beyond that ingenuity, AFP taught their men welding so “they could go out and build more prisons.”
         That honest skill gave her father a reason to exist, and demonstrated a truth about the valedictorian’s bloodline. “He could barely write his name,” she says. “It’d be so much pressure, so hard; he’d press down on that pencil! But he designed equipment that had never been engineered before. He came up with hydraulics that didn’t exist.”
         He also welded stills so legendary that Cook’s actually met the son of a prison guard who knows where one of her father’s stills is. “He made stills for the prison management,” she says. “There’s pictures of him driving the warden’s cars, in a band, and going outside.”
         As Elizabeth came into her own, the family wasn’t quite sure what they thought about the maverick songwriter and her off-kilter country. When she played her mother “El Camino,” a song about getting freaky with an older dude in a janky car, her response was, “Oh, Elizabeth! REALLY?
         “El Camino” was nominated for Song of the Year in 2014 by the Americana Music Association. For the couple whose done- good daughter was a home brew scandal, it was only a matter of time. Cook learned pride in who she is, and saw a community 30 miles south of Gainesville respond.
         “We were poor, and we were trashy,” she laughs, unrepentant. “But we were gonna be beloved in this city anyway. If Daddy was on a drunk, she’d call City Hall — and they’d figure out how to bring him home.”

    It does feel like it’s raining fire But that don’t make me or you a liar Let’s part the waters, let’s walk the seas Let’s laugh in the face of modern disease — “Exodus of Venus”

    With the ghosts of her family receding, her marriage to collaborator Tim Carroll crumbled, and life after rehab unsteady, Cook turned to music. She also turned to guitarist Dexter Green, who produced Collective Soul’s “Better Now” as a child, progressed to high-dollar jingle work and has produced a myriad of indie acts.
         The two met floating through the East Nashville scene. He eventually recorded two Townes Van Zandt songs — “Tecumseh Valley” and “Pancho + Lefty” — on Cook and Jason Isbell as a gift for longtime supporter David Letterman. One thing, as they say, led to another.
         “He has a way of translating vibe into tone,” Cook begins, addressing his production acumen. “Also, he’s into curating my voice and applying it to very different arrangements. That all made me dig deeper lyrically, ’cause the music isn’t trite. You have to be heavy when the arrangements and guitars sound like this, because the cute tricks won’t work.”
         Bringing in a core band of drummer Matt Chamberlain and bassist Willie Weeks meant deep pockets, precise high hat work that hit hard, something for Cook’s vinegar ’n’ fire voice to bounce off of. Add Ralph Lofton’s steamy B3 and Jesse Aycock’s lap steel, and you had the recipe for combustion — all lashed together by Green’s live wire guitar parts.
         It was a whole new world, a whole new sound. Emerging from the dark, Cook found herself immersed in a different kind of sonic template. She loved it.
         “I’ve gotten these tweets saying, ‘You’re keeping it country’,” she says. “And I’m like, ‘Well, no. I’m not keeping it anything but real and what it needs to be.’
         “I aspire to be to more than clever or dark or poignant,” she continues. “I want to supersede style, you know? To do that, I can’t keep myself handcuffed to a genre. I’d rather be honest than be consistent.”
         With “Straight Jacket Love” featuring serious mountain harmony from Patty Loveless, even the hardest country bristles with rock intensity. Blind emailing the Country Music Association Female Vocalist and Album of the Year winner, Cook sent her three songs and said, “If you hear anything you’d wanna sing on ...”
         Loveless came back, drilling down on “Straight Jacket Love.” Cook thinks, “Maybe it felt like some kind of dark Appalachia, but Patty went right for it. She has such an authentic texture and power when she sings. She’s showing me what I’m trying to do.”
         Raw-nerve, white soul singing. Unadorned, unexamined — open your heart and go. Loveless has excelled at smearing the lines between bluegrass, rock, and hard country. Cook steps into that light on Exodus and shivers off much of that past.
         “We’re going from Little Feat to R.E.M, then put Appalachian harmonies on it,” she says. “All these funky grooves with dark guitars. That’s what this record is.”
         “Heroin Addict Sister” returns in the shuffling “Methadone Blues,” while “Cutting Diamonds” slinks and stop-times as it captures romantic reorganization, and “Orange Blossom Trail” celebrates life on the sketchy side. Growing up near the undeveloped outskirts of Orlando, where the Orange Blossom Trail is a cavalcade of hookers, swap meets, immigrants, and grifters, Cook learned that topography inside out.
         “That road is to Orlando as Dickerson Pike is to Nashville, and the East Nashville I moved to when we’d all be at the Family Wash, eating our Shepherd’s Pie between shootings,” she says. “Truth is: I’m more comfortable there, in those kinds of places. Living on the shady side, with shady people, the comfort level I have in those environments suits me.”
         Like a cat stretching, there is pleasure in this report. There is also the acceptance of who she is, no matter how many fancy dresses or big TV shows she does. That acceptance speaks to the real core of Exodus, an almost existential kick-out-the-jams truth that reflects the realignment.
         “That’s one theme: the rebuttal against judgment,” she explains. “Telling people, ‘You know I’m OK here. I know what it’s like, and I like it.’ There’s a real liberation to not trying to be the good girl. It brought back some joy, and I almost care more or maybe differently about this record because of it.”
         She pauses as the pieces fall together. Some of this wasn’t planned out beforehand, but standing with some distance, certain truths are becoming self-evident. With a laugh, she proclaims, “I’ve been in some Courtney Love situations, but I’m deserving my respect. And I’m saying all this on two feet solidly planted on the ground.
         “This record, these songs were a necessity. It’s the only power, the only tool, the only weapon I have. I had to blow (what was) up to make it my own. The force of Dexter firing up: He’s a lot of the inspiration at a time when I was stunned like a fly that’s been swatted by a screen door smacking into it.
         “I hope these songs are emboldening people who’re down. I hope it makes them feel less alone, supported; maybe even something to push off the bottom. To me, it’s sorta like a Pledge of Allegiance for the bad girls, those homecoming queens who got caught in a scandal.
         “I was always the good girl who got away with more than she should. The songs I’m known for, I can’t really sing on the Opry — but they invite me all the time. I get away with saying stuff on the radio to a demo who’s rigid and can get away with it — and I don’t know why. I’m fortunate. But it catches up.
         “That’s the thing (about this record). And I love that: get out there and make mistakes and don’t apologize. You know, I’m not ashamed! This has happened, and I’ll tell you all about it.”