If you were to look up “Outlaw Country” in your Webster, chances are the definition would come with a little picture of Elizabeth Cook.
She’s a songwriter, singer, and recording artist, and she also happens to be the afternoon DJ on Sirius XM station Outlaw Country. She spins the tunes of Willie and Waylon and all the others who broke the mold of country music, back in the 70s, and added different styles and flavors to the mix.
She also plays records by Margo Price, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Jamey Johnson and other contemporary artists who fly the flag of fiercely free-spirited country music. And sometimes she also turns her own records.
Cook, who will perform tonight at Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa, writes with the incisiveness of John Prine, the elocution of Nanci Griffith and the wit of Lyle Lovett. His deceptively melodic songs are tough and tough, and speak to a range of near-bone issues like addiction, recovery, and family trauma. With lighter things like “Sometimes it takes balls to be a woman”.
And she’s a local girl. Well, sort of.
Born 49 years ago in Wildwood, just an hour north of Tampa, Sumter County, Cook had musical parents whose ‘hillbilly band’ played truck stops and beer bars across the South. .
As a child, she often went on stage with the group. “I didn’t have a lot of positive associations with music because of my dad’s drinking and the wild honky tonk scene they were playing in,” Cook told the Catalyst. “When I was about 12, I told them I didn’t want to sing and play live music anymore. I wanted to be a cheerleader. I wanted to hang out with my friends.
So she went into the business of being a teenager. “There was a mall in Leesburg, with a movie theater. And Ocala had the Paddock Mall. And we walked around the Wildwood mall a lot, once the cars were available. Until then, I was cycling in the beautiful nature of Florida.
“I spent hours and hours pedaling my bike. My parents loved to fish, so we fished all the time, weekdays after school, we always fished on a bench somewhere. In Florida, I am easily entertained by trees and birds.
“I’m still madly in love with it, still talking about it, and still trying to keep it a secret, all at the same time.”
The local Pentecostal church had a “full-fledged gospel rock band,” she recalls, and that’s how she got her teenage “music fix.” She was a creative writer who produced award-winning short stories and poetry.
The Cook family moved to Georgia during Elizabeth’s freshman year at Wildwood High.
Longing for stability and armed with degrees in accounting and information systems from Georgia Southern University, she moved to Nashville to work for Price Waterhouse. But she hated the job, and being in Music City rekindled her love for music. She had been writing songs since college, and when she was offered a job at a Nashville publishing company, the bookkeeping life was left in her dust.
It was the 1990s, the era of “arena” country artists like Shania Twain and Faith Hill, a “gold rush,” Cook says sarcastically. “They were looking for tax shelters. They couldn’t bury the money fast enough. So everyone could get a publishing deal.
But she connected with a small group of editors and artist managers who took these things seriously and understood that a budding artist needed to be nurtured and nurtured. “It was totally against the grain of what was going on around us,” she laughs. “Because we were like a small overlooked office of a giant New York company, we grew a lot and were able to grow.”
She self-liberated The blue album and made his first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry in 2000. This led to a major label debut, followed by a more or less steady stream of independent releases – each a bit further away from mainstream country than the last.
Cook’s latest album, 2020 Consequences, was led by rock ‘n’ roll producer Butch Walker (Green Day, Weezer, Taylor Swift). It has been compared, in terms of seismic stylistic change, to the iconic Emmylou Harris Wrecking ball.
In other words, it doesn’t sound — on the surface, anyway — like country music.
Today she has a fishing show (Upstream) on the Circle Network — and, she says proudly, she just launched a line of “cute as hell” overalls. “I’m not a young chick,” she said. “So it’s hard won. I’m not ready for retirement yet. I did this without a lot of the benefits you get from selling, wholesale.
It’s the same definition of “Outlaw Country” from the Waylon and Willie days: don’t sell yourself.
Still, she’s performed at the Grand Ole Opry — ground zero of good old red, white, and blue country music — more than 400 times (though she’s still not a “member”).
“I’m a woman and I say things that maybe aren’t always very safe for everyone’s comfort level in the room,” Cook says. “It’s risky for them to give me a platform. So I’m grateful for those who did.
“It’s funny, some people think ‘Outlaw Country’ is like a certain sound, like an aggressive country sound. Like country music is in a bar fight or whatever.
“And it’s a thousand percent off base. It’s about making music on your own terms.
Sara Borges opens tonight at 8 p.m. All tickets are sold online, here.