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Commercial country doesn’t know what to do with Elizabeth Cook — and that’s a shame

Time in Mind

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Elizabeth Cook is precisely the kind of person country radio should want as both an artist and a listener. Raised in the South by working-class parents who listened to Merle and Dolly, this thirtysomething would seem to be at the center of country radio's core demographic. Her disarming soprano, hillbilly instincts and a distinctive songwriting gift should have made her latest release, Welder, a radio hit as well as the No. 3 album in the Country Music Critics' Poll. The fact that she neither sings on nor listens to mainstream radio speaks to the ongoing crisis in country music.

"I don't know what happened," she says with a sigh. "I should be one of the people they're appealing to, but they've lost me. I loved Reba, John Anderson and Mark Chesnutt, but the last good song I heard on country radio was the Dixie Chicks' 'Traveling Soldier'; that was the last song that didn't sound like guys in a cubicle saying, 'Hmm, what can we come up with today that will appeal to the emotionally bankrupt 36-year-old woman and allow us to go to the bank?' There are all these groups trying to sound like Fleetwood Mac. I don't get that. If I were running country radio, I would play Hayes Carll, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Todd Snider, the Dixie Chicks, Rachel Harrington and Justin Townes Earle — good singer-songwriters who are speaking to the country narrative."

Cook was signed to Warner Bros. in Nashville and released a much delayed but warmly reviewed debut album, Hey, Y'All, in 2002. As photogenic as any of the queens of Pro Tools and as authentically twangy as any of her heroes, Cook should have been on her way, but none of the singles clicked. She ended up on several indie labels before she found a comfortable home on 31 Tigers. Her 2007 album, Balls, took its title from the memorable line, "It takes balls to be a woman," while Welder contains songs like "Yes to Booty" and "Heroin Addict Sister." Such moves raised some eyebrows, but they were the same eyebrows raised by Loretta Lynn's "Fist City" and Martina McBride's "Independence Day."

"When I do songs like 'Heroin Addict Sister' and 'Balls,'" Cook says, "people respond so strongly. People live with issues like that; they're grateful when you tackle them. Even if they don't have a sister on heroin, most people have relatives with problems and they want to hear about it. That's what it's all about for me, to hit people that deeply. That's why 'Heroin Addict Sister' is a country song. Country music is not defined by the wrapping paper, by how many steel guitars are on it, but by its honesty and lack of pretension. Rock 'n' roll talks with guitars and elusive lyrics — they know how to cop a vibe and create an emotion more indirectly. Country music lays it out there right in front of you. It's grown-up music."

The critics recognized what Cook was up to, voting her the year's No. 2 female vocalist, No. 3 songwriter and No. 9 artist. A surprising number of ballots included Cook alongside Jamey Johnson and Taylor Swift, suggesting she could easily work on country radio if only the program directors would have her. She would like nothing better, she admits, but only if she can sing about troubled sisters and lusty women the way Loretta and Dolly once did. After all, Cook can't shift to rock or pop radio — country is too deep in her bones.

"Country music is my filter and my biological larynx," she acknowledges, "so I'm always going to sound this way. While my friends were buying Eagles records, I was listening to my parents do George and Tammy duets. If you saw my record collection, you'd know it's full of the Stanley Brothers and the Louvin Brothers. But I don't care about tradition — I really don't. I have no interest in being a nostalgia artist. Hank Williams wasn't trying to keep the sound of Uncle Dave Macon alive. He was trying to do what was honest and real for his time. That's what I'm trying to do for my time."

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