Elizabeth Cook's guilty pleasure is Nashville. Better make that Nashville, the setting for an outrageous TV show with fictional country-western singers, songwriters and Music Row executives who play each other just as much as the music that made them famous.
Maybe some truth lies inside that friction, though.
There's plenty of melodrama in the ABC series heading toward its third season later this month, but Cook, who will appear multiple times at AmericanaFest next week, admits she's a fan.
"I enjoy the hell out of the show," Cook said over the phone from her lawyer's office in Nashville last week. "It's my Falcon Crest, it's my story, I think it's hilarious and epic and awesome and wonderful. And it's just a guilty, debaucherous show. I think it's fantastic."
This lifelong Southern girl established her roots in East Nashville in 2002, saying, "If you got a record deal for 30 minutes (back in the day), you could buy a really cool old crack house."
While she can't vouch for Nashville's authenticity, Cook knows how to drop a bombshell of her own that has nothing to do with a cliffhanger episode setting up the next season.
Asked halfway through this interview if she would appear with Tim Carroll, her rocking, guitar-playing husband, during the upcoming week, Cook calmly said, "Uh, no. Tim and I are divorcing."
For once, Cook didn't sound like she was trying to be funny. With that piece of dreary news, a little bit of Miss Florida Sunshine was missing, yet rays of hope emerged as talk turned back to AmericanaFest, other upcoming projects and the addictive network hit that has almost as much country corn as Hee Haw, even if Nashville's humor is unintentional. But maybe its plot twists aren't so outlandish after all.
"Well, I got a few phone calls after the pilot aired that there were characters based on me and Tim," Cook said. "And characters based on other people that we knew in the business. And so I don't know to what extent that is true. I will never know."
She might even identify with one of those soap operatic girls gone wild in a show filled with juicy roles, blonde ambition and scheming backstabbers.
"The story line was that there was this little ... the crazy, over-the-top little country girl with the guy that had the publishing deal and the record deal, and the tables turned," Cook said. "And that's exactly ... that was me and Tim. I was Tim Carroll's girlfriend in Nashville before I was anything else."
Cook and Scarlett O'Connor, the Nashville character played by Clare Bowen, now have another thing in common besides goldie locks, striking looks and savory hooks. But Scarlett and Avery Barkley, who were together when the series began, split a lot sooner than this real-life couple that married in 2003.
Also unlike Scarlett, the neurotic starlet who suffered a breakdown and is questioning her career choice as a musician at the end of Season 2, Cook seems steadfastly determined to continue down a path that's had its shares of ups and downs.
If Cook's definitely single again, it's almost certain the vivacious woman who religiously attended Sunset Park Church of God as a little girl still has faith in herself -- along with a backup plan. Apparently, keeping a firm grip on both began long before she arrived in Nashville.
Born in the rural central Florida town of Wildwood, Cook joined her parents on stage at the age of 4, then started making records when she was 8 after her first trip to Nashville with them (see below).
Three years later, her interests shifted from roots music to rooting for the home team.
"I wanted to be a cheerleader," Cook said.
The daughter of a hillbilly singer married to a moonshiner who played his upright bass while in a prison band eventually went to Georgia Southern University. Earning degrees in accounting and computer information systems was a ploy "to rebel against my parents," she said, "to try and have a job and stuff and have money and stuff ... they didn't understand that choice, but I did it and did well."
After getting hired by an accounting firm right out of college, then working as an auditor for Pricewaterhouse in Nashville, Cook said she was given a chance to write songs "on a fluke," adding, "I guess they were looking for a place to bury Garth Brooks' money."
Coming to a realization that "accounting really sucked," she signed a series of publishing and record deals but called that period of her life "pretty much a disaster" while dealing with some hard, cold facts about the industry.
"Music Row is in a very specific business," Cook said. "And it's not necessarily in like helping one discover their own artistic path. And I was, you know, a good girl from the South trying to do what I was told and what I was being paid to do but there was just enough quirkiness and inability ... it wasn't unwillingness, it was an inability to cooperate and be compliant.
"So I kept writing weird songs and never did quite fit in. So that had to play out and once that played out, I stole some demos from Warner/Chappell and made a little indie record and met (Thirty Tigers president) David Macias. He started developing me, giving me the platform to do whatever I wanted with resources. And that was the first time I had that, where I was in charge."
The daring Balls in 2007 got her noticed by the association that champions a mixed-bag genre encompassing variations of folk, bluegrass, rock, gospel, blues and outlaw country, and she received her first Americana award nomination ("I'm sure I was a member in good standing at that point somehow," she said).
She was nominated three more times in 2011 for Welder , facing some stiff competition as artist of the year from the unlikeliest of Americana performers.
"Yeah, me and Robert Plant," Cook said, laughing about the incredulity of it all, even though both lost out to Nashville favorite son Buddy Miller.
Still unsure if it's had a major impact on her career -- "It sort of puts you in a little bit of a select group for attention, I guess," she acknowledged -- Cook is Americana's go-to girl these days.
Her week begins Monday at the Ryman Auditorium, where Leftover Salmon will re-create The Nashville Sessions, then continues on the same stage as presenter at Wednesday's awards show.
The darling of the Grand Ole Opry (her Sept. 12 outing is the latest among more than 300 guest appearances) also is scheduled to perform at other venues with artists such as Parker Millsap, Todd Snider and his fellow Hard Working Americans before she wraps up the festivities as host of the annual Gospel Brunch at City Winery on Sept. 21.
The smart and tough cookie who often unwraps a gift of gab also has turned into quite the comedian, an outspoken tell-it-like-it-is guest of David Letterman and host of her own radio show, Apron Strings, on SiriusXM's Outlaw Country.
"It's great," she said of the flexibility of broadcasting from wherever she is at the time, whether it's a hotel room on the road or a tour bus rolling down the highway. "Fantastic, unbelievable that I have no supervision and have this platform to go on and say whatever I want and play music and talk about whatever I want."
Part of her duties next week will be interacting with Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter Cash, and recent Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Mac Wiseman for a Sirius "Family Circle" event (1 p.m. Thursday).
Cook's radio guests have included Lucinda Williams, Rodney Crowell and Old Crow Medicine Show, but her most memorable interview might be her first -- the one with Carlene Carter that never aired.
"I was super-excited, super-nervous, super-starstruck," Cook said. "And I went through the whole process and we did it and she left and I never turned on her microphone."
Cook eventually got another interview and sang harmonies with the descendent of country's royal family on the recently released Carter Girl. They "struck up a magical friendship and sisterhood," Cook said, "and (Carter) told me that my mother had sent her to take care of me."
Not that the youngest in a family of 11 children has a problem taking care of herself. Even she realizes her shortcomings, particularly when it comes to the technological tools of broadcasting.
"I always come with a disclaimer," she said. "I do not understand this gear. I do not claim to understand this gear. There's always a risk that it will not happen because I do not understand this gear."
Somehow, though, she always manages to figure it out.
TAKE A RIDE WITH ELIZABETH COOK
The artist shares her thoughts about Nashville and more. Her edited responses:
What do you remember about your first trip to Nashville?
"Oh, gosh. I was about 8 years old. My Mama and Daddy brought me up. We went to Opryland. My Daddy tried to bribe a band that was playing to let me get up and sing. They rejected him. And then we went down to Music Valley Drive, which is now like all this other stuff. But there was this old gospel singer named Wally Fowler. And he had some sort of review show weekly. And you could audition to sing on it. And so I did and I got it. And extending our stay, we had to get a new hotel room. So we ended up getting one in Dickerson Pike, which is by the roughest part of Nashville. We had to leave there in the middle of the night. But I stayed and sang and the guy told Mama and Daddy to take me back to Nashville and write some original music and work on having a regional hit. So that's what we did. "
For a music fan visiting Nashville for the first time, what should be at the top of their to-do list?
"I really recommend like driving around or even taking one of those stupid trash tours. Because you get a lay of the land and get to understand all the pockets of it. And then whatever part speaks to you is where you go spend time. But it's a really efficient way to get the lay of the land. There's great restaurants in East Nashville and Germantown and a great bar scene at Five Points. There's the 5 Spot (in East Nashville), there's Lower Broadway, there's the Station Inn, there's Carrie's (Coffee, etc...). It's robust. There's really almost no way to pick, 'Oh, here's what you do when you come here.' It's gotten so great and so happening, you kinda can't go wrong. I think you just relax and soak it up."
What's still on your wish list of things to do in Nashville?
"I'm gonna think about that for a second because I want to give you an answer. Let's see. (long pause) I need to go fishing with Mel Tillis. Yeah, he's invited me to do that and I haven't taken him up on that. ... He's got a place. Bobby Bare and Mel Tillis, they've invited me to come drop a hook with them and I need to do that. ... I just went deep sea fishing (in Florida) on my birthday in July and caught some red snapper. ... I miss it very much. When I moved to Tennessee, the water's not the same. I don't really dig fishing around here that much. But I love fishing in Florida."
What are some of your favorite haunts in town?
"I like Old Made Good, they call it OMG. Favorite store. I like the Treehouse for their late-night menu. That's Pam Tillis' place in Five Points. They have this 10 after 10 menu. You can get an egg sandwich and a pot of espresso, it's delicious. At the 5 Spot, a lot of my friends play, and we all hang out there a good bit. "
What's the worst question you've been asked in an interview situation?
"It's non-questions. Somebody like says, 'So you're from Florida.' And I really don't know what to do with that. Listing facts from the bio. I don't like to talk about it. I have a hard time, a little bit, with interviews."
What's next for Elizabeth Cook?
"Everything, man, everything. Todd Snider has sort of been my, I don't know, boss of the moment and mentor, and so I'm writing stuff and playing it for him. He's got a lake house. We're working on stuff out there. I've got three or four other recording projects going. Acting stuff going. Touring stuff going. A lot of personal life stuff going."
NEXT: THE NATIVE DAUGHTER
Publicity photos courtesy of Thirty Tigers. Concert photo by Michael Bialas. See Part 1 of this series with Parker Millsap.