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Elizabeth Cook: Transcending A Cult Career

Elizabeth Cook kicks off her new album with "All the Time," a rolling and tumbling country song. Her twangy vocal and harmonies with Buddy Miller let you know she's locating herself just outside the mainstream of the country-music industry. If we didn't get that message clearly enough in her opening number, she invokes hip-hop gangsters and the movie Boogie Nights in the next song, "El Camino"; by the fourth song, she's making you wonder just how much the tune "Heroin Addict Sister" is autobiographical and how much is fiction.

You don't start competing with Carrie Underwood and Sugarland for big stadium tours and country-music awards with songs about heroin and joyriding with guys who do cocaine. But if you're good, you do something more than become the latest generation of country-music outlaw, and Cook is good in almost every song on Welder. She sings in a high-pitched curl of a voice that can suggest innocence she shrewdly contrasts with her lyrics, as in her jaunty novelty song "Yes to Booty."

The album's title, Welder, is taken from her father's working-class profession, and throughout the album, Cook hits all the country-music touchstones. Song about a working on a farm? Check. Rowdy song about drinking? Check. Song about Mama dying? Check. And just when you start thinking that Cook is a bit of a put-on artist, she gives you a first-rate honky-tonk duet with Dwight Yoakam called "I'll Never Know, or a beautiful ballad that resists any sort of easy classification, called "Not California."

Welder is the kind of album that certain sorts of country-music fans are going to buy and pass around like a talisman, valued by the initiated as impure stuff to be savored. Elizabeth Cook may be content with this sort of cult status. But in her best songs, she demonstrates the ability to transcend a cult career. Whether or not that even matters to her -- well, that's a subject she could probably write a whole other album about.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

Elizabeth Cook is a Florida-born singer and songwriter who first performed on Nashville's Grand Ole Opry stage in 2000. She hasn't become a star over those past 10 years, but she's attracted a following within the industry for her emotionally raw lyrics and for working with well-respected producers such as Rodney Crowell, who produced her previous album, and Don Was, who produced her new, fifth one called "Welder."

Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(Soundbite of song, "All the Time,")

Ms. ELIZABETH COOK (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) I'm crazy about you, baby. It don't do no good. I could tell it to the movie out in Hollywood. I tell it when I'm sober, and I tell it on the wine. I tell it to the judge, I love you all the time. I chase you down that mountain and I chase you up that creek. I chase you starting Sunday through the end of the week. Now go ask your mama and see if she don't mind. You got to know by now I love you all the time. You got to know by now I love you all the time.

KEN TUCKER: That's Elizabeth Cook, kicking off her new album with a rolling and tumbling country song. Its twangy vocal and harmonies with Buddy Miller let you know that she's locating herself just outside the mainstream of the country-music industry. If we didn't get that outsider message clearly enough on that opening number, she invokes hip-hop gangsters and the movie "Boogie Nights" on the next song, "El Camino." And by the fourth song, she's making you wonder just how much the tune "Heroin Addict Sister" is autobiographical and how much is fiction.

(Soundbite of song, "Heroin Addict Sister")

Ms. COOK: (Singing) She asked for her momma's bathrobe and a pot of potato soup. She's gonna dry out this time if it kills her. She wants the whole family in the loop. She can outsmart death like a stuntman. She's a cat with 99 lives. She's my heroin addict sister, and I've known her all my life. She's my heroin addict sister, and I hate to see her go. And I hate to see her holding on at the end of the same old rope. She pushes tiny...

TUCKER: As I suggested earlier, you don't start competing with Carrie Underwood and Sugarland for big stadium tours and country music awards with songs about heroin and joyriding with guys who do cocaine. But if you're good, you do something more than become the latest generation of country music outlaw, and Cook is good on almost every song on "Welder." She sings in a high-pitched curl of a voice that can suggest innocence she shrewdly contrasts with her lyrics - such as this one, a jaunty novelty song called "Yes to Booty."

(Soundbite of song, "Yes to Booty")

Ms. COOK: (Singing) Why can't I just let you love me? We've been working all week, and it's Saturday. The weekend rolling 'round's like a weight off our back. You thought you'd celebrate with an ice-cold 12-pack. When you say yes to beer, you say no to booty. You holler, come on, baby. Why you acting so snooty? Well, if you've slept with a drunk man, you understand it's not that hard. It's common knowledge around here when you say yes to beer, you say no to booty.

TUCKER: The album's title, "Welder," is taken from her father's working-class profession, and throughout the album, Cook hits all the country music touchstones. Song about laboring on a farm? Check. Rowdy song about drinking? You just heard it. Song about Mama dying? Check. And just when you start thinking that Cook is a bit of a put-on artist, she gives you a first-rate honky-tonk duet with Dwight Yoakam called "I'll Never Know," or this song, a beautiful ballad that resists any sort of easy classification, called "Not California."

(Soundbite of song, "Not California")

Ms. COOK: (Singing) Who's the girl inside of the blue screen light? The sun is just pouring out. Everything's out of sight. Turn around, the room is just black and white. She's whispering nah nah nah nah nah nah nah. Nah nah nah nah nah nah. And it's not true. And it's not fair. And it's not new. And it's not California here.

TUCKER: "Welder" is the kind of album that certain sorts of country music fans are going to buy and pass around like a talisman, valued by the initiated as impure stuff to be savored. Elizabeth Cook may be content with this sort of cult status. But on her best songs, she demonstrates the ability to transcend a cult career. Whether or not that even matters to her, well, that's another subject, a subject she could probably write a whole other album about.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Elizabeth Cook's new album "Welder." You can hear three tracks from it, including "Not California" and "I'll Never Know," on nprmusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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