No matter what its apologists may claim, country music enjoys no special access to the truth because it uses three chords. Like any other form of popular music, country works best when it uncovers and delivers new information about the world — which isn't necessarily the same thing as telling the truth. On her brilliant new full-length Welder, Nashville's Elizabeth Cook has fashioned a compassionate, funny overview of what the form can do with its three chords and its obsession with family, time, fame and distance. If much of modern country is musically lazy and positively dishonest, Welder reveals Cook as a poet of everyday life who doesn't shrink from the world's hard, sad realities.
Welder finds Cook working with renowned producer Don Was, who has previously added his expertise to records by Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson and Todd Snider — the last of which sparked the collaboration. "Todd Snider very deliberately introduced me to Don Was and thought that we should work together," Cook says. "I sat in with [Snider] at Bonnaroo last year and Don played bass with Todd at Bonnaroo. So we met at a rehearsal at Todd's house the night before. The timing was right, because we were about to make a new record."
Cook had rightly received good notices for her 2007 album Balls, which she cut with producer Rodney Crowell. Like Welder, Balls was recorded quickly with a crack band. Still, Cook says the records came of out very different circumstances.
"It's apples and oranges," she says. "It's not so much that the producer was different as that I am really different. What the music calls for is a different thing. By the time I started writing for Balls, it was the first time I was completely untethered to a publishing company, to Music Row or any preconceived notions of me. I was very much foolin' around and writing those kind of quirky little ditties."
Born in north-central Florida, Cook moved to Nashville in 1996. Playing the usual Nashville music-industry games, she obtained a publishing deal, debuted on the Grand Ole Opry in 2000 and released her major-label debut, 2002's Hey Y'all — which went nowhere. Balls used the crafty guitar playing of her husband, Tim Carroll, and showcased the defiant hick feminism of Cook and Melinda Schneider's "Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman," which took Loretta Lynn's examinations of troubled domesticity into delirious new heights. For all its critical acclaim and obvious quality, Balls wasn't an enormous commercial success.
" 'Sometimes It Takes Balls' was a song that was being well-received by women who go to NASCAR races and women who go to Nanci Griffith concerts," Cook says. "We were being mindful of that from a marketing standpoint. CMT totally picked up on it, and we had lots of video airplay. It was difficult in terms of country radio."
Neither full-fledged Americana nor commercial country, Balls featured originals on the order of "Times Are Tough in Rock 'n' Roll" and an audacious cover of Lou Reed and John Cale's "Sunday Morning," a track from The Velvet Underground's 1967 debut record. As it does on Welder, Carroll's dirty, allusive guitar provided rock 'n' roll kicks. Too spare for an audience accustomed to note-perfect recordings, Balls was a brave effort to combine hip sensibility with old-time country.
Was says he picked up on Cook's complex persona early in their collaboration. "She is ephemerally — no, not just ephemerally — a country singer," he says. "Just who she is as a person, as an artist. She's definitely got that going on. But when you get beneath the surface you find she's a total hipster. She's equally at home in the Grand Ole Opry and on the cover of Interview magazine."
Cook has been playing the Opry for a decade, but she balks at being perceived as a throwback to the halcyon days of country music. "I have no incentive to write for mainstream country music or big publishing companies, or trying to get cuts," she says. " I would be absolutely bored to death if I was just gonna be a nostalgia country artist who just sang old fiddle tunes and wore period costumes."
Part of Cook's eclecticism can be credited to Carroll, a first-rate songwriter and guitarist whose slurs and solos throughout Welder recall the playing of the late Memphis musician Alex Chilton. "A lot of time I'll be talking about some record or we'll hear a record and I'll realize she doesn't know about this artist," he says. "There are a lot of people to know about. As for this record, it was more like Elizabeth just got to bring her own band, whoever she wanted, and Don directed them a little bit." Dwight Yoakam and Buddy Miller both make appearances, as does Balls producer Rodney Crowell.
Welder presents an artist who has seen beneath the platitudes of a form devoted to the small victories and defeats of ordinary people. "El Camino" begins with a funky riff played by Carroll and picks up steam without overplaying its hand. Cook's eye takes in details such as the "1972 refurb" her inappropriate love object drives, then delivers a couplet that's both loaded with meaning and funny: "If I wake up married, I'll have to annul it / Right now my hands are in his mullet," she sings.
The record's greatest moment may be "Heroin Addict Sister," which Cook delivers in a weary voice perfectly in tune with the song's subject. "Every one of them men was crazy about her / So she married a couple of them twice," she sings. Cook doesn't waste a syllable, but she describes both a wasted life and her own reaction to a very bad situation. The song is beyond glamour, just as its compassionately observed subject is probably beyond redemption.
Elsewhere, Cook says her piece about marriage in "Girlfriend Tonight" — "Honey I know that I am just your wife / I want to be your girlfriend tonight" — and pays her respects to country tradition with a cover of Frankie Miller's 1959 "Blackland Farmer." For all her knowledge and respect for the past, her insights are her own. "It would be a cop-out for me just to look back at what somebody else had said," she says. "I think it's safe, I think it's boring, and it doesn't interest me at all."