When Elizabeth Cook comes to your town one of these days (and pray that she eventually will), expect a show of faith from the woman who had enough balls to become High Priestess in Americana's House of Worship.
In between covers by Johnny Horton, Frankie Miller, Doc Watson and Velvet Underground and originals from albums including Balls, Welder and her latest, the divine Gospel Plow EP released in June, Cook is likely to tell a few stories while letting you separate fact from fiction. She might even show you the light.
The lucky few who wisely chose to attend her Sunday night show at (appropriately enough) a renovated church called Stargazers Theatre in Colorado Springs the day before Labor Day were treated to all the above.
Cautious of "creeping out" her nondenominational followers, the onetime country dreamgirl still played four of the seven glorious songs from Gospel Plow, leading off with "Every Humble Knee Must Bow." Maybe it wasn't a religious experience, but those numbers did help convert any disbelievers.
Colorado Springs certainly got an enticing sneak peek during a lively 75-minute show. Taking white trash-talking beyond the Hee-Haw demographic level, this Southern bellflower was pleased that the comfy club even named a cocktail after one of her songs off Welder, the critically acclaimed Don Was-produced album that made various Top 25 lists in 2010.
"I heard they have a drink here tonight called the 'El Camino,' " Cook said 12 minutes into her 21-song set that also featured husband-electric guitarist Tim Carroll and steady standup bassist Bones Hillman. "That sounds delicious and dangerous; I'm gonna do that song, but I'm gonna wait a little bit for everybody to get their proper 'El Camino' buzz before we do it, so you can have the full experience."
A polite crowd that initially seemed content to sit on their hands skewed more toward senior citizenry than senior high. They needed an early jolt from the $5 concoction that included vodka, peach schnapps and cranberry juice.
While Cook's speedy delivery and random references to "Vietnamese bluegrass" and "old hillbilly shit" kept them off guard, her church-going past paid off on stand-and-deliver encounters such as "Hear Jerusalem Calling" and the closing "If I Had My Way, I'd Tear This Building Down." A few old-timers eventually managed to swing dance in a roomy area behind the first set of table and chairs that bumped up to the front of the stage.
Wearing a short black skirt, high-legged boots and a brown leather jacket, the blonde bombshell on acoustic guitar looked as sweet as she sounded, dealing with the altitude by sipping bottled San Pellegrino water instead of "El Caminos." And her valuable two-piece accompaniment was so formidable that a drummer wasn't missed.
Hillman (left), a New Zealand native who moved to Australia in the 1980s to perform with Midnight Oil, was a sturdy player and good-natured butt of Cook's Bloomin' Onion and fart jokes. And Carroll, her musical and life partner, provided fast-paced rockabilly ("The T.G.V.") and sonic bursts of Gretsch-powered energy midway through "The Roof Song," a number they did at Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble in 2010 that got the attention of "big-time movie directors."
While other Carroll songs have previously appeared on movie soundtracks (Election, Drop Dead Gorgeous), Cook revealed that "The Roof Song," named for literally putting "the biggest, most bad-ass roof" over their heads in East Nashville, was edited out of the recent Jane Fonda movie Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, so "it will not be coming to a movie theater near you."
Called "a borderline genius" by Stargazers co-owner John Hooton (who wants her back on a livelier weekend night), Cook didn't mind showing her tender side on several ballads. "Mama's Prayers" was written as a Mother's Day gift in 2006, two years before her mother died, and "Heroin Addict Sister" is about a woman who:
Got married at least 5 times / Every one of them was crazy about her / So she married a couple of em twice
Yet with a brain that works as fast as her smart mouth, Cook (with Carroll at right) has the ability to lighten the mood of the audience after such a dark moment. Even though the venue was only a quarter-full of its listed capacity (693), she treated her patrons kindly -- except when making them targets of her biting irreverence.
Heading into Merle Haggard's "Today I Started Loving You Again," Cook had the prepared response after discovering there were a sizable number of Outlaw Country fans in the crowd: "I appreciate y'all putting on a clean shirt and coming out."
She even made fun of herself, admitting, "I didn't know who Gram Parsons was until I moved to Nashville and started smoking pot with a bunch of songwriters."
Later pleased to find out "that he spent a good part of his formative years in Waycross, Georgia, where I went to high school," Cook was honored to get invited to perform at the town's Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival in 2011.
Eager to learn a challenging Parsons number that would impress festivalgoers, she took on "Hot Burrito #1," which "has so many damn chords in it, it ruined my vacation." Even if she isn't a full-fledged Sweetheart of the Rodeo, her affecting version touched fans in Colorado Springs, too.
Cook's colorful (as in redneck) family history provides ample material for an act that obviously has been honed during appearances on Late Show With David Letterman and her own Apron Strings weekday morning radio program on Sirius' Outlaw Country channel.
Born in the Central Florida town of Wildwood to a "hillbilly singer from Charleston, West Virginia" and a "daddy (who) got out of jail after running moonshine with the Mafia," Cook was the 11th and last addition to a blended family in which each of her parents united five children from previous marriages. But this wasn't exactly the Brady Bunch, according to Cook, who made references to her "sorry-ass siblings."
Dragging their youngest along, her folks would spend weekends as members of a beachcomber band in nearby bars. "Daddy had played upright bass in the prison band; no shit, he was a real winner," Cook said. While resting on the seventh day, they made sure their daughter went to the Sunset Park Church of God in Sumter County.
The congregation, Cook recalled, "spoke in tongues and they had this preacher that was like Elvis and he would cry and he would beat the Bible on the pew and would lay his hands on all the ladies 'cause they needed extra healing. But the best part of it all was there was this full-out rocking country-gospel band. ... They didn't quit until the Holy Ghost came down and sometimes that could take up to two to three hours until there was a cloud of fried chicken smoke hanging over the whole neighborhood."
If those memories didn't exactly provide the impetus for Cook, now 40, to become spiritually "born again," the Southern Gospel sounds from her latest album have inspired a musical rebirth.
Who knows if it will bring everlasting salvation. But the saving grace and glory of Gospel Plow should be some staying power more enduring than the time it takes to sing the entire 19-minute EP that includes "Jesus," another Velvet Underground cover.
A wild child still might be living inside Cook, but you gotta believe that little girl who sat on a barstool staring for hours at a jar of pickled eggs must at least be renting a guest room.
Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more from Elizabeth Cook's show at Stagazers Theatre.