It’s fun to ponder the enigma that is Elizabeth Cook’s career. To some, maybe many, she is the host of Apron Strings on SiriusXM’s Outlaw channel first and foremost, just because they spend so much time with her each week to the point where she feels like family. When considering her music, many would probably cite 2010’s Welder as her master work. A stark, raw, and honest singer-songwriter effort of the alt-country realm, it was certainly a high water mark for her career.
But Elizabeth Cook enjoyed an entire era of straight up traditional country output at the start of her career, peeking with her 2007 record Balls, which has just been reissued by Thirty Tigers to celebrate its 15th anniversary. An excellent little country album that showcases Cook’s strong voice and songwriting, it’s still most certainly a gem worth listening to here 15 years later.
It’s the song “Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman” that gives rise to the album’s rather racy title, and has become one of Elizabeth Cook’s signature tunes. Written at a time when Cook was becoming disenfranchised with the country music industry in Nashville, she started performing the song around town, and it caught the ear of legendary songwriter Nancy Griffith, who helped put Cook in touch with Rodney Crowell, who eventually produced the album. The song was a ballsy move so to speak, but it paid off.
Balls has some decent variety, like a Velvet Underground cover in the form of “Sunday Morning,” and the rather cheeky “Times Are Tough in Rock n’ Roll,” which speaks to Elizabeth Cook’s growing disdain for the music business at the time (as well as Britney Spears and Rolling Stone). But the balance of the album are these short, but very sweet little country songs that take a simple premise, and turn them into sincere moments. It’s Harlan Howard’s “three chords and the truth” put to action in a way that makes you heed Harlan’s maxim.
Seriously, if you want some superior examples of the beauty of simple country songs, listen to “What Do I Do,” or “Mama’s Prayers,” or “Gonna Be,” and you’ll be convinced. Some listeners may even think these songs are too simple—missing a verse or two—especially after listening to the more involved compositions on Cook’s subsequent album Welder. But the beauty here is saying so much with so little like all great country songs do, and Rodney Crowell resists the urge to make these songs “Americana.” These are country songs that fit Elizabeth Cook’s voice exquisitely, and that’s how they’re ultimately rendered.
Near the end of the album is where it turns the most personal, and maybe even prescient. The dour and hopeless “Down Girl” sets up the much more optimistic “Gonna Be,” where Elizabeth Cook predicts her future moment in the spotlight is still out there to be snatched. And that’s exactly what happened after the release of Balls. With endorsements from Patty Griffin, producer Rodney Crowell, and Bobby Bare who Cook sings a duet with on the album, she went from struggling songwriter and performer, to a fast-rising name in independent country. No, she did not become a superstar. But soon she would become the Grand Ole Opry’s favorite fill-in performer, a mainstay in Nashville’s independent scene, and eventually a Sirius XM radio show host.
Subsequently Elizabeth Cook moved much more into the Americana lane. Listening to her 2020 album Aftermath, there’s not a whole lot resembling country music at all. You have to respect the creative butterfly that is Elizabeth Cook, and wanting to cage her in a specific genre might be cruel. But as a country fan, you can’t help but wish she would make another country album at some point, specifically due to how well she nailed it on Balls. She still knows all the old country standards and gospel stuff front to back, and will still perform it whenever the opportunity is right. So that possibility still remains.
But that’s the great thing about great country albums. They never go anywhere and you can always return to them, and sometimes they get even better with age. So if most the new stuff in 2022 is leaving you a little bit nonplussed, it’s a great opportunity to revisit Elizabeth Cook’s Balls.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8.4/10)
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Purchase Elizabeth Cook’s Balls