Back in the early 1970s, the original outlaw country movement started in reaction to Nashville’s lean into formulaic writing and slick production that artists like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Jessi Colter, and Tanya Tucker considered sacrilegious. Looking back from now, they likely had no idea how formulaic and slick country music could — and would — get. Thankfully, the outlaw country counterculture carries on, with contemporary additions like Margo Price, Jamey Johnson, Shooter Jennings, and Elizabeth Cook.
Cook’s latest release, Aftermath, further solidifies her standing, not just among country outlaws, but as a bonafide rocker, as well. Produced by Butch Walker, the set finds Cook continuing to sift through the ashes of her life, rising from them as the artistically indestructible phoenix that she is. In song after song, she is at once fragile and defiant. Free of any external — or internal — constraints, Cook bares her soul and crafts these stories with equal measures of self-awareness and self-deprecation, resulting in a thoroughly potent piece of work that breaks all boundaries. If that ain’t outlaw, then nothing is.
Lest anyone think you’re just a rock star, which you are, in addition to making records and touring, you also have your radio show on Sirius XM, your new fishing show on Circle TV, your Squidbillies roll, more than 400 Opry appearances… I know it’s hard to say no when dreams are coming true, but how do you balance all of those different things?
I don’t. It’s a constant state of damage control. [Laughs] I have to stay pretty active or I go to not-good places, so it’s kind of a survival mechanism on some levels. And I’ve never been a person that knows how to be bored or go slow. It’s not my nature. I always see a thousand things to do. And, when I do need to slow down, I have to make a real focused effort to do it. It doesn’t come naturally.
I could see that about you. That makes sense. Well, there’s a whole riff in your bio about how you spent your 20s being sort of part of the Nashville machine, writing what you thought people wanted to hear. You’ve never struck me as someone willing to kowtow to anyone’s bullshit or cater to any lowest common denominator. So tell me about getting caught up in that system and then getting out of that system.
Yeah, well, I think it’s pretty common, especially for females in their 20s, that we’re raised in this society to behave with a certain amount of reverence to a social system. Certainly what I was exposed to was a pretty rigid path, and I didn’t know that there were any routes that I could go with music that didn’t include striving to be Reba McEntire. That’s my only reference coming out of rural Florida and Georgia. So that’s kind of what I set out to do. And it was on the heels of that sort of neo-traditional movement that happened in the late ’80s and ’90s.
But by the time I get to Nashville and get a publishing deal and make a little indie recor and, a few years in and I get a major label record deal, and it’s all shifted. Country music acts are starting to become arena acts like Shania Twain and Garth Brooks. They’re manufacturing CDs at 25 cents a unit or something and selling them for $25 a unit. Radio has deregulated and is owned by two massive communications companies, and the payola system is in full swing. So I was disgusted by that. Simply not capable of making the type of music that I had worked toward getting this holy grail of a major label record deal. The music that they wanted, at that point, was not the belt buckle Reba; it was Faith Hill in a ballgown singing about breathing to an orchestra. And I’m still writing quirky country songs, funny as hell, and all those things. So it was such a heartbreaking misfit of trying to put a puzzle piece into a puzzle that just wasn’t going to fit.
And I had so many accomplishments, though, along the way, of getting to play the Grand Ole Opry and having a lot of validation from people around the industry that did like what I was doing. There was this fateful moment where David Macias started Thirty Tigers. I went into his office to explain to him that, even though I was deal-less, I was putting out a new little record and I was going to be fine. And I had my plan of how I was doing that on paper with, like, stickers and stuff like that. So it’s been a slow build since then with some disruptions. But that is how I kind of navigated through all of it and the universe navigated me through it.
I wouldn’t call it awesome business prowess with my stickers that I put on my marketing plan.
Hey, I’m going to say that marketing plan is probably more than a lot of artists ever have had, stickers and all.
It was a hard sell.
I believe it.
I believed I was going places.
Yeah. You can’t run for sheriff without a marketing plan.
You’ve got to have the nail files and the whole thing.
Yeah, yeah. [Laughs] I feel like our lives are so much more nuanced than we portray publicly. Social media, cancel culture — all of that makes it almost a crime to have complexity and fallibility in our human existences. We build people up. We stomp them down when they don’t meet our imagined expectations. And to me, songs, when they’re real and true, they help peel back some of those layers to get to the humanity and hopefully inspire some empathy. What’s the point otherwise? Right? Do we need more songs about beer and boobs? I don’t think so.
I know that’s what you’re doing — not the beer and boobs. You’re doing the other work.
Yeah. Yeah. I do think it’s like there are two facets. You know, there’s the cheap, low-hanging fruit route. And I’ve done some of that. I wrote “Balls to Be a Woman.” I wrote “Yes to Booty.” You know, I like a good time in a honky tonk. I’m not opposed to that. But humanizing people helps our acceptance of them because you just see more things to relate to, so you’re less critical of the things that you want to do, that we’re taught to judge. So, yeah, the beer and booty songs are can be way overdone and really cheapen the whole medium of music and songwriting.
And country music, especially.
It has dumbed down our culture to a tragic, tragic extent. Also, on the other hand, songs that are just flat-out protest songs that do nothing but preach facts, “This is right and this is wrong”… I don’t like that approach. Everybody that agrees with you is going to be like, “Fuck yeah!” And then everybody that doesn’t is going to be like, “Shut up!” You know? So I think the route of getting people to step inside someone else’s shoes and to have more compassion and understanding of complexity and nuances in folks’ lives is best done through a storytelling projection, if it’s not about a specific person, but about a character like a “Heroin Addict Sister” or “Stanley by God Terry” or “Mary, the Submissing Years.” I like to do it through storytelling and kind of a character framework when I write songs. The humanizing of someone’s experiences is a great service toward humanity, and doing it in music is a beautiful delivery system. Yeah, I don’t like preaching and I don’t like stupid.
So the new record, Aftermath, you were just talking about some of the songs on it. It picks up and expands on some of the things that you started exploring on Exodus of Venus back in 2016, after you went through a whole bunch of tough stuff. Even if time hasn’t completely healed all of that stuff, it’s given you a different, wider perspective, yeah? Now that you’ve had a little time, you’re maybe a half-step back from it and that’s how you can keep going into it. Is that about right?
Yeah, totally. You make a new deal and hit the reset button on your strength and your power. There was this time I was tubing down the river outside of Austin, and the river had gone way up with nothing but trees and snakes and rapids. We quickly realized that we were not on a float, but we were going to have to have a sporting event vibe in order to survive this. So, at one point, I see a little bit of a jagged rock sticking out of the water that we’re swiftly approaching. We’re all tethered — me and this other girl and our cooler in the middle. And I can tell that we’re not going to be able to veer to one side or the other in time, though. The middle part snags and just flips my float over and there’s rocks. Had my head hit one of those rocks at that velocity, I wouldn’t be sitting here, at least not in this state, if even alive.
But what happened when I did that spin, I planted my feet in between these two slate rocks where there was just a little bit of gap and I stood up to brace against this current. It was a moment of ultimate power. Only in a storm like that can you really find that level of power within you. And so that’s very reaffirming. It builds confidence. It peels away fear. And that’s helped me in my creative pursuits a lot.
Yeah. It’s almost like a clean slate, starting fresh. I love that idea, that part of “aftermath,” the word or the meaning, because even if it is coming on the heels of complete destruction, you do have that moment, you have this tabula rasa where you can start fresh from this new power.
You need a relationship with your own strength.
In a very visceral way, and only in that moment can you even conjure that type of strength because you have to. It’s like a survival instinct, and you’re never more powerful than you are right there in that moment, so it just renews your whole relationship with the power and the strength that you do have. And that’s very liberating. Watching so many people close to me die and sort of helping them in those last moments, I’ve lost some of my fear of death because I know what it looks like, and I have to accept it. So it’s not this unknown fear. It’s confronted me in very realistic terms. And that’s so empowering.
When you lose your fear of your mortality and try to keep your good sense and not let that inner self-destructive territory, it’s a really, really powerful place to operate from. So there’s a lot of creative chances and places you can go.
I love that you have that very physical, real life example to draw from for the emotional metaphor, the psychological metaphor. That’s pretty cool. So “diggy liggy lo” and “Stanley” and a few other things aside, this record puts you decidedly into rock and roll instead of country in a lot of ways. I hear REM and U2 almost more than Tanya Tucker and Willie Nelson. So it’s almost like an outlaw double-bucking the system in a way. What does it feel like for you and what does it symbolize to you moving into this new sonic space?
Well, again, it’s just sort of a move within my power that I did not sit down and think, “Oh, I really want to make a rock record now.” I use whatever musical format I need to best get my point across in the song. Music and note choices and tone choices and instrumental choices all carry information. And so the song — and what I’m trying to do — dictates what the type of instrumentation is. I don’t identify with a specific genre. I have music that I love. I have my biological instrument that is what it is. I don’t feel like being true to the infrastructure, I want to be true to the soul that is using that infrastructure.
No one will ever take away my love and deep affinity and passion for Tanya Tucker and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn. And I mean, that’s in my DNA. But just because that is my music of choice for my pleasure listening — and I also love REM and U2 and all those things, too. You know, I’m going to serve the song. And staying overly reverent to bluegrass or to country that can cut your song off at the knees.
And like “Stanley by God Terry,” I think is like a sort of country, Tom T. Hall-type slice of Americana. But I needed and wanted it to sound dreamy and ethereal, so that brought in a certain a certain piano sound and certain chimes and pedals on a steel guitar. And what’s most important to me is to get the song across, because I’m a writer at heart. If I was a banjo player at heart, I’d be trying to express myself through banjo. And I do aspire to be a banjo player because I love that instrument a lot.
Clawhammer or other?
I like to three-finger roll.
Yeah, but I mean, I said “I like to.” [Laughs] Because of the way I play acoustic, clawhammer is much more conducive to what I already do.
And yeah, I’m not the most accurate on the old three-finger roll, not at the speeds that are needed to be acceptable in the bluegrass realm.
So you’re not going to be winning an IBMA Instrumentalist of the Year award anytime soon.
No. I’m not going to get the Steve Martin scholarship or whatever. [Laughs]
That’s OK. [Laughs] Well, everything about the first few songs on this record is just badass. And I wonder how much of that comes from the fact that there’s this defiant style in the music, but then this vulnerable substance in the lyrics like you’re laying yourself out there. Does having that edge to the sound make it a little bit easier to be vulnerable?
Yeah, it’s armor, you know? You can use it to build some armor around you. I mean, like for “Bones”… I’m literally talking about wearing my parents’ ashes, and I didn’t want it. It’s just what happened. What I was trying to say just had a tribal feel. So that’s why, when I first wrote it, I started just humming that kind of tribal part, because it is about my tribe and it is about bones and ashes and things that we attribute to a deep sense of spirituality with the Earth. And so that’s what made sense there.
And same with the drum beat that that came in behind that. “Perfect Girls of Pop” is just sort of getting washed away in this high-tech new world and not being able to know who you are yet, and not being equipped to to express it. And then what’s the third song I’ve got…?
Yeah, yeah. That’s one of the songs I co-wrote. So that one actually came from a write with my keyboard player in Gravy. He had his rig up and just started playing that riff. That’s what came out of my mouth, when he was playing it. I just said, “I must look ready to make bad decisions. I must look wonderful tonight.” And he’s like, “Yeah, keep going.” “Rolled up on me with tunnel vision.”
That line “I must look ready to make bad decisions” is such a brilliant opening line. It’s self-awareness and self-deprecation all in one. Other lines hit that same mark, on this record. So let’s use a fishing metaphor, OK? When you hook a line like that, does it usually mean that they’re going to be biting that day and things are going to flow or is it still a struggle?
Yeah, I mean, it can be both. I can usually get some and I’ll do this deliberately sometimes, like, I get a hold of something and it’s just like, for lack of a better term, speeding my float. It’s just coming out and it’s got a vibe and a use of language that’s just all falling into place. And sometimes, if I get a verse and a chorus in, or a line in — there are a million of those on my phone — I was just stuck and I know I’ve got my nugget and then I don’t necessarily try and get too greedy in that moment and get the whole thing. I’m a big editor. I go back and forth. “Daddy, I Got Love for You,” I wrote over like 10 years. “Mary, the Submissing Years,” I wrote in six hours. “Perfect Girls of Pop,” I wrote in nine hours. So sometimes it’s like knowing I’m going to write something, maybe having the first line, then sitting down and all done. It’s efficient. But I don’t like to force it because it’s got to meet a certain relevance to me and a quality to me.
Yeah, since you mentioned that, “Daddy, I got love for you,” you know, your line is stage four, cancer, chewing tobacco and all the answers. My father had pancreatic cancer, a glass of wild turkey and none of the answers. So not quite the same. But I get it.
And I did read that you stitched that one together from a few different song pieces. Now, you said, over 10 years. How much closure do you get from finally putting something into a song and putting that song into the world?
I mean, a tremendous amount. It’s like when a song is nagging like that, when you finally get it, it’s like killing a fly buzzing around your head for a year. So it is extremely gratifying when you finally get closure on one that’s been floating and formulating forever. But again, I refuse to force it. I refuse to make myself sit down and, as like a lot of folks on Music Row will say, “Let’s sit down and write one.” I don’t sit down and write one. That whole thing pisses me off, like “Sit down and write one… What are you talking about?” These are like Bible verses. You don’t just like sit down at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday.
A lot of people do. [Laughs]
They suck, mostly. There’s some that are good at it, I guess. I’m not one of them.
Yeah. Does it also give you emotional closure on whatever topic you’re addressing?
Yeah, I think to some extent. But truth be told, I feel so out of body in this life so much and disassociated so much, that it can take years of performing a song on tour before I’ve come home to it and landed at my peace with the story. When that happens, when I’m singing a song — and this happened a lot on solo tour — because that’s really where I like to work on new material. I like to be in full command when we go into the studio, knowing the song and all its layers. But a line will come around, and I’ll sing it, and it will reveal itself to me and its meaning in another way. And it’s rattling. They almost feel prophetic in the sense that this has all already happened, but I don’t understand it yet, and so I’m writing stuff forward for my emotional sort of resolution, if that makes any sense.