She's Just Elizabeth Cook

Friends and colleagues share their stories of the Madison musician

Compiled By Andrew Leahey
Photography by Emma Delevante

Elizabeth Cook photographed by Emma Delevante
Elizabeth Cook photographed by Emma Delevante

Cover Story

Share this story!

Andrew Leahey:

Bandleader

In the beginning, it sounded almost too easy. A weeklong European tour with Elizabeth Cook. Four of us playing festivals in Scandinavia and stuffing ourselves with smoked salmon. 

Things came apart as soon as we landed in Stockholm.

Luggage was missing. My guitar pedals were stuck in Iceland. Bassist Kevin was still in Nashville, the victim of a last-minute flight cancellation. 

Jet-lagged, the rest of us gathered in the hotel lobby to make a plan to save the tour. There were other bands in town, friends from Nashville who’d also crossed the Atlantic that week. That’s how we found Michael, who agreed to learn more than a dozen of Elizabeth’s songs in a single evening and join us on bass. Our drummer, Dan, waited for his lost luggage until the last minute, then made peace with the fact that he would perform in the same sweatpants he’d worn on the plane.

The show should have been a mess. Everything was different: our clothes, our roster, even the two-pronged outlets that powered our borrowed amps. But once we locked into the stomping thump of the show-opening “Bones,” everything else fell into place. 

A touring band can access a secret reserve of energy after everything else has gone to shit — a “fuck it” mentality that usually results in some very cool gigs. We rode that wave for 60 minutes. But Elizabeth? I think she’s been riding it for at least two decades.

Advertisement

I first met Elizabeth backstage at Basement East in October 2017, two days after Tom Petty died and about 20 minutes before we were supposed to play a very unrehearsed cover of “Room at the Top” together. She became friends with Emily, my wife, in about 10 seconds. After the show, I invited myself into her life. 

“We should play more music together,” I said. “I don’t drink, I’m a good van driver, and I always share my gummies.” She replied, “You’re hired!” 

Have you ever heard Elizabeth talk? It’s a geographic experience: Central Florida swamp talk, Southern street slang, and Georgia twang. Whatever you call it, the sound is very much her own, and it’s earned her a longtime side hustle as a DJ on SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country channel. 

Advertisement

Albums like Elizabeth’s Aftermath have their own dialect, too. I listen to “Stanley By God Terry,” and I hear a very specific Bible Belt biography. “Bayonette” is seasick boogie. “Perfect Girls of Pop” sounds like the car ride to high school in 1988, the FM radio dial caught halfway between stations, R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” bleeding over into Rosanne Cash’s “Seven Year Ache.”

“I feed the fire, fuel the flame, I live to play another day,” Elizabeth sings on Aftermath’s “Daddy, I Got Love For You,” a song about reflection and resilience. She’s been writing a lot of battle-scarred beauties like that one lately. I think it comes from a long history of rolling with the punches — deaths in the family, departing band members, a van whose engine just won’t stay fixed. 

But her best songs don’t focus on the trauma as much as on the tenaciousness it takes to keep moving forward. Fuck it, indeed. 

Elizabeth is a storyteller who has told her own story many times. To listen to her  — on stage, on SiriusXM, on albums like Aftermath and Balls — is to know her. That’s why I wanted to turn to her collaborators and contemporaries, allowing them the chance to tell what they know, too. It’s time to give the storyteller a break.

Elizabeth Cook photographed by Emma Delevante
Elizabeth Cook photographed by Emma Delevante

Troubadouring with Todd Snider

Friend and tour mate

Years ago, I was really in a funk. A lot of my friends were trying to help me get out of it, and Elizabeth said I should get myself some flowers. I had this truck I’d rented, so we bought a shit ton of flowers and loaded them into the truck. 

We got in the truck … and couldn’t get it to start. Next thing we know, some guy is walking up to the window wanting to know why Elizabeth and I were in his car. I guess we’d come out of the store and walked to the first truck we saw, like a couple of stoners. 

We were sitting in there trying to make the truck go, and the guy is like, ‘What the fuck are you guys doing in my truck?’ And I replied, ‘Troubadouring.’”

Elizabeth is like Lou Reed and Loretta Lynn. She’s just an anomaly — an artsy-fartsy chick who’s been everywhere, done everything, grew up in a trailer, writes great lyrics that don’t fit into the suburbs, and can also gut a deer!

When she opens for me, I don’t like going onstage after her. I like everything else about it, but audiences love her, and it’s hard to follow that! 

It’s nice to get close like that to somebody who you admire so much. Sometimes she’ll read me lyrics first, then play the song. And I’m like, ‘This is great! You’re doing autopsies and letting people watch.’ It’s really like she’s opening her heart and showing everybody what’s in it.

They say rejection is fuel for artists. And I’ve certainly seen Elizabeth get kicked around for not fitting in. Years ago, when she got offered a big tour with Wilco or something, her old label was like, “Who’s that?’ They didn’t understand it. She needed their financial support for that tour, and instead, they offered her cash to get bigger boobs. (And that’s just ridiculous. Guy Clark doesn’t have to get bigger boobs.) That’s when Elizabeth said, “OK. I get it now. It’s gonna be a longer ‘drive to town’ than I thought.”

Advertisement

Musically, she keeps going out there. She’s exploring, and it’s all held together by the poetry she writes. The stuff she says on her albums is getting denser and more complicated, and I don’t know anybody who uses language quite the way she does. 

People hear her music and they say, “She should have more.” And she should. 

But let’s not ignore what she has. She’s free as the wind.

Elizabeth Cook photographed by Emma Delevante
Elizabeth Cook photographed by Emma Delevante

Butch Walker: ‘When do we start’

Producer of AFTERMATH

Elizabeth said, “Hey, would you ever be interested in making a record with me?” 
“Sure,” I said. “Why not? Sounds super fun to me.” 

I was out west at the time, still living in California. She said, “I’m just gonna fly out there and play you these songs on a guitar.” I was a little taken aback, because nobody ever does that. They’ll usually send me crappy voice memos, or fully fleshed-out demos of songs. 

She shows up at my studio, sits down, pulls out a guitar, and the first song she plays is “Stanley By God Terry.” And after I heard that, I just said, “When do we start?”

Elizabeth writes from an Americana Gothic perspective, and her voice is very, very magnetic. When she’s talking on her radio show, I think people are drawn to her Dolly-esque endearments. When she sings, there’s a fragility to her voice that does remind me of Dolly, but there’s also a lot of character and, well, balls, not to miss the opportunity for the pun.

It’s really amazing that a voice like that is genuine, because a lot of times people are just putting on that urban-cowboy-cosplay bullshit in cities like Austin, Nashville, or L.A. But this is the real her. 

She has absolute permission to wear all the Nudie suits she could ever want, because she can back it up by being the real thing. (As opposed to me, who owns a Nudie-style suit but is basically a recovering metalhead.) 

Elizabeth Cook photographed by Emma Delevante
Elizabeth Cook photographed by Emma Delevante
Elizabeth Cook photographed by Emma Delevante
Elizabeth Cook photographed by Emma Delevante

Swimming pool problem solving with Carlene Carter

Musician, friend, and Madison neighbor

Elizabeth and I have solved a lot of the world’s problems while floating in my swimming pool. 

There’s a bunch of musicians who live in Madison now, just like back in the day when Hank Snow lived up the street, and my grandma played cards with Minnie Snow. It’s a community here, and it’s familiar to me. A lot has changed, but these are still the same streets I rode my bicycle on. 

I have deep roots in Madison, and Elizabeth is setting down deep roots as well. She has a very Madison life over there at her house, with the garden and her crazy dog, DuRail. I’m so proud of her. I’m so happy she lives here.

On my album Carter Girl, she came into the studio to sing on two songs with me, but we got along so good that I used her on six of them. She’s great at singing with other people. It’s just a natural thing for her. 

We can just look at each other and sing together, and it feels like family to me, which is why I dubbed her an honorary Carter girl. And I don’t do that! There’s not anybody else who isn’t related to me who has that title. 

We’re connected, though, and I value that so much these days. I don’t know what I would’ve done during COVID if Elizabeth and I couldn’t have made this pact to hang out together and have wonderful afternoons while taking a dip.

Aftermath is a perfect progression for her. When she was signed to Warner Bros., she didn’t feel like she fit the mold of the Nashville cookie-cutter country thing. I remember feeling the same way. 

She doesn’t have a particular genre. She’s just Elizabeth Cook. That’s the space she needs to be in, and that’s where she’s at. 

It takes a lot of bravery to not conform. To not worry about how you’re going to fit in. But if you don’t like what you’re doing, what kind of career is that? 

I had a reputation for being difficult, but it was just me wanting to do things a little differently. I wasn’t reinventing the wheel, I just wanted to do things my way. I see Elizabeth doing that, too. She’s following her muse, which is perfect.

That’s the best advice I could ever give anyone else: Be yourself, be unique, and don’t be scared of what people expect of you. 

Don’t listen to what anyone tells you unless they have your best wishes at heart.

And keep your publishing.