When Elizabeth Cook talks about growing up in Florida with parents who played country music in roughneck honky tonks, the stories are endlessly fascinating. But she’s never helped us be there and see and smell the scene as vividly as she does in her song “Stanley By God Terry” on the new album Aftermath.
They could kinda play but they could really drink
Somebody’d finally say exactly what they think
And Pine-Sol, sawdust and last night’s beer
And a bolo tie on a rear view mirror
There’s a fighter in every dancin’ fool
I watched all as a baby from a black barstool
“It’s a direct story to the best of my memory,” Cook says in Episode 145 of The String. “My mother was playing at the Pine Grove Lounge pregnant with me. I was in that bar gestating, with the band. And the songs they really loved were a lot of Buck Owens and fun honky tonk music of the 70s in the South.”
But it wasn’t all just scrappy fun. The song tells a true story involving the family’s best friends where things go terribly wrong. It is, as she says, Southern, gothic and tragic. And as was the case with past tracks like Cook’s vivid “El Camino” or “Tabitha Tuder’s Mama” the details lodge in the mind and take us to places we’d probably never go on our own.
“Stanley By God Terry” is one of twelve tracks on Aftermath, a bracing, rhythmic, fuzz-toned album full of lyrics that pulse like neon lights. The single “Perfect Girls Of Pop” slashes at the “big machine” of image-driven culture. The ambitious “Half Hanged Mary” recasts a strange story from the colonial witch hunt era, as enshrined in a poem by Margaret Atwood. Cook finds another literary inspiration in her wickedly clever answer song to John Prine called “Mary, The Submissing Years.” Meanwhile, the record’s title is lifted from the song “Bones,” a stomping incantation evoking the memories of her mother and father, whose deaths were part of a hard stretch of years that knocked Cook off course for the first time in a charmed Nashville career.
Cook emerged as an artist almost exactly 20 years ago with a self-produced album and a dazzling persona that quickly became the buzz of indie country lovers. She and her music had a soulful twang and an undeniable heart, and she had a funny, smart hillbilly rapport that reminded folks of Dolly Parton. The Grand Ole Opry embraced her without a deal or a big team and invested in her music, having her back hundreds of times, thanks to the solid bond she made with every crowd. And while a one-off major label album cost her more in momentum and time than it helped, Cook became a star of roots/Americana as a truth-telling traditional country singer.
After the release of Welder in 2010, life got more complicated. She divorced her husband the Nashville roots rocker Tim Carroll and grieved the passing of quite a few family members including her father. There were substance use and mental health challenges, much of which got worked on and through the release of 2016’s Exodus of Venus. She found her footing by touring solo for the first time in her life she says, and writing this new album with a sense of unprecedented freedom.
“It’s a very slow and deliberate rebuild, sort of like dragging rocks one by one by myself to build everything back up,” she says in our interview. “To me it’s part of the process of moving on. I still feel like I’m in the middle of processing things that have happened. And aftermath in an agricultural sense is like a second growth that gets cut back into the soil to fortify it. So, scanning the lyrics to for a word or two to sum up everything that’s on this record that’s pretty dense with lyric, I came across that word in the song ‘Bones’ and thought yeah, that makes sense.”
It’s an uplifting, unfiltered conversation, and we close out with perhaps the best news of all, that Cook is at last launching the TV show she’s long wanted to make. It’s a fishing talk show with cocktails called Upstream with Elizabeth Cook, and while she couldn’t divulge the premiere date at that time, it’s just been announced as coming Thursday, Oct. 8 at 8:30 pm CT on the Opry Circle Network. Her music may not swing with overt country stylings these days, but the show will be an outlet for her down-home heart.