If you were to look up “Outlaw Country” in your Webster’s, there a good possibility the definition would be accompanied by a small photo of Elizabeth Cook.
She’s a songwriter, a singer and recording artist, and she also happens to be the afternoon DJ on the Sirius XM Outlaw Country station. She spins the tunes by Willie and Waylon and all the others who famously broke the country music mold, 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 the other contemporary artists who carry the flag of fiercely free-spirited country-tinged music. And sometimes she spins her own records, too.
Cook, who’ll 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. Her deceptively melodic songs are hardscrabble and tough, and talk about a range of close-to-the-bone issues like addiction, recovery and family trauma. Along with more lighthearted 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 in Sumter County, Cook had music-making parents whose “hillbilly band” played roadhouses and beer lounges throughout the South.
As a small child, she often got onstage with the group. “I didn’t have a lot of positive associations with music because of my father’s drinking, and the wild honky tonk scene that they played in,” Cook tells the Catalyst. “When I was about 12 years old, I told them I didn’t want to sing and play live music any more. I wanted to be a cheerleader. I wanted to hang out with my friends.”
So she went about the business of being a teenager. “There was a mall in Leesburg, with a movie theater. And Ocala had the Paddock Mall. And we cruised the Wildwood Shopping Center a lot, once cars were available. Until then, I was riding my bike around in the beautiful nature of Florida.
“I spent hours and hours pedaling around on my bicycle. My parents loved to fish, and so we bait-fished all the time, weekdays after school we were always fishing off a bank somewhere. In Florida, I’m easily entertained by the trees and the birds.
“I’m still madly in love with it, still talk about it and still try to keep it a secret, all at the same time.”
The local Pentecostal church had a “full-out rockin’ gospel band,” she remembers, 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 re-located to Georgia during Elizabeth’s junior year at Wildwood High.
Yearning 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’d been writing songs since her college days, and when she was offered a job in a Nashville publishing house, the accounting life was left in her dust.
This was in 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 could not bury the money fast enough. So everybody could get a publishing deal.”
But she connected with a small group of publishers and artist managers who took these things seriously, and understood that a budding artist needed to be nurtured and encouraged. “It was totally against the grain of what was going on around us,” she laughs. “Because we were like an ignored little office from a giant New York company, we got way with a lot and were able to develop.”
She self-released The Blue Album and made her 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 indie releases – each a little further away from mainstream country than the one before.
Cook’s most recent album, 2020’s Aftermath, was helmed by rock ‘n’ roll producer Butch Walker (Green Day, Weezer, Taylor Swift). It has been compared, in terms of a seismic stylistic shift, to Emmylou Harris’ iconic 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 with pride, she’s just launched a line of “cute as hell” overalls. “I’m not a young chicken,” she says. “So it’s been hard-won. I’m not ready for retirement just yet. I’ve done it without a lot of the perks that you get with selling out, basically.”
That’s the same definition of “Outlaw Country” from the Waylon and Willie days: Not selling out.
Still, she has performed at the Grand Ole Opry – ground zero for good old red, white and blue country music – more than 400 times (although she’s still not a “member”).
“I’m a female and I say things that maybe aren’t always super-safe for the comfort level of everyone in the room,” Cook says. “It’s risky for them to give me a platform. So I’m grateful for the ones that have.
“It’s funny, some people have an idea that ‘Outlaw Country’ is like a certain sound, like an aggressive country sound. As if country music was in a bar fight or whatever.
“And that’s one thousand percent off-base. It’s about making music on your own terms.”
Sara Borges opens tonight at 8. Tickets will be available at the door.