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Americana nods just start of good times for Cook

Elizabeth Cook thinks there may be something fishy going on. She's been through the broken-dreams thing before and she has no reason to trust these TV people out in Los Angeles who've started chatting her up.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Elizabeth Cook thinks there may be something fishy going on. She's been through the broken-dreams thing before and she has no reason to trust these TV people out in Los Angeles who've started chatting her up.

"I've got my Appalachian, oppressive, paranoid, mistrusting, suspicious thing that's in my genetic DNA, so I'm thinking I'm being somehow duped," Cook said.

The Nashville singer doesn't want to say too much, but she's in talks with producers to star in her own TV sitcom: "It sounds like big talk to me." But it's true and just the latest astonishing development in a career that was on a frustratingly slow simmer for half a decade before this sudden boil, which also includes three nominations at the Americana Music Association Awards on Thursday for her album "Welder." She did not win.

She's tied with Robert Plant and Buddy Miller for most nominations at the event that celebrates roots music of all stripes, from Cook's hillbilly-flavored alt-country to Plant's homage to early rock 'n' roll and folk, with his Miller-directed all-star Band of Joy. All three are nominated for artist of the year.

"Yeah, awesome," she says sarcastically of facing off with the juggernaut created by the Led Zeppelin frontman. "How cool for me."

It's that sense of humor that's turned her world upside down at 39. She caught David Letterman's attention with her SiriusXM Outlaw Country show "Elizabeth Cook's Apron Strings" and kept him in stitches with stories of her colorful family during an August appearance on "Late Show."

She went to visit a friend in Los Angeles the next day. That friend, a casting director, forwarded a link of her interview with Letterman to a few key contacts. Others, also intrigued, sought out Cook. The reality folks even began to circle before she told them to buzz off.

"Probably within 24 hours of me being out there I was sitting in every corner office," she said.

And she's been traveling to Los Angeles and New York City regularly since, alternating tour stops with creative meetings.

Cook has tried the acting thing before, even landed a few roles that offered tantalizing promise. But her acting career seemed to have gone in the direction of her music career. There too she'd been on the brink of something big when she put out an album on Warner Bros. Records in 2002, but her record didn't receive the kind of attention she'd hoped and she eventually asked out of her contract. She never really gained the kind of wide exposure a major label can offer again, though she continued to record and release independent albums.

Tim Carroll, Cook's husband of eight years, thinks things may be different this time, though. Her radio show has allowed people to get to know her, something Letterman also did by having her on for an interview rather than a performance.

"That's so much cooler than just watching someone sing a country song, I think, in a way," Carroll said. "One of my favorite things about Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, when they come and actually sit down with someone and get interviewed, I actually want to hear their opinions. It's pretty cool what these women will say and I think people are intrigued by that. And it's kind of the role that Elizabeth is getting."

That personality was already on display for anyone willing to listen. She's a smart, inventive songwriter who comes by her hillbilly cred authentically. Her mother was a singer from West Virginia and her father was a moonshiner fresh out of jail when he moved in next to Cook's mother in Wildwood, Fla., where both families had migrated for the railroad and citrus work. Turns out he'd played the standup bass in the prison band and soon her parents formed a honky-tonk band and started grooming a star.

"They focused their musical energy, because they couldn't really be in the bars at that time, on getting me to sing and putting together little bands for me," she said. "So it was just like our family hobby that we would go do that. I didn't particularly enjoy that."

She ran as far away from the life of a honky-tonking barnstormer as she could, becoming an auditor at Price Waterhouse in Nashville after college. After 18 months she realized her mistake, and ditched the safe life for songwriting.

Sitting on the back patio of her small but lovely Nashville home, she described how she figured out what it would take to stay alive, to continue touring up to 200 shows a year and to make the occasional record, and somehow made it work. The Americana nominations show she's found an audience that appreciates the artist she's become.

"I do what I do and it's not for everybody," she said. "It's very, very hillbilly, but not in my opinion the overly simplified, pandering, manipulative way that a lot of the mainstream country music is, where people sound really country but if you listen they're saying real dumb stuff and lines that have been said before over and over again."

Don Was, who produced "Welder" after meeting Cook at Bonnaroo a few years back, said he was drawn to that authenticity in Cook's music.

"I think she's a really unique voice," Was said. "I don't just mean the timbre of her voice. I'm talking about the point of view from which she writes. It's this combination of intelligence and wit and hipness and this Southern folksy kind of delivery that's just unique."

Together they crafted an album that's at turns fall-down funny and heavy with real, gut-wrenching emotion. "Welder" is up for album of the year and "El Camino," a tale of ill-advised lovin' with a man, his mullet and his tricked-out car-truck hybrid, is up for song of the year. Was thinks even more of songs like "Heroin Addict Sister" and "Mama's Funeral," songs that retain that sense of humor even while they're digging deeply into darker material.

"She's the real deal, man. She's a real artist," said Was, who's produced Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson and Bonnie Raitt. "She goes in as deeply as anybody I've ever encountered and I would love to see the public catch up to her."