Elizabeth Cook & Will Hoge
Elizabeth Cook’s Revival: Exodus of Venus
Elizabeth Cook didn’t quite know what she was doing. But she knew there were songs, and they had to get out. Six even years since her critically acclaimed Welder, as well as much personal tumult, there were songs that needed to be born.
“If anything, (Exodus) is a pledge of allegiance for the bad girls and the Homecoming Queens who got caught in a scandal. It’s a bill of rights, and a testimony for those good girls who got away with more than they should have.
“I’m slow, and getting slower,” laughs the lanky blond, unapologetically. “I’m taking my time, really drilling down. There were nine versions of ‘Methadone Blues.’ I’ve never done that before. I love that entrenchment and dedication – and I wasn’t going to do any less than what needed to be done.”
From Dexter Green’s (also the album’s producer) opening electric guitar, equal parts foreboding and fraught, “Exodus of Venus” hurls a churlish witness to erotic upheaval and the drives that subsume our best notions. “Exodus” is an exhortation of sexual surrender that pushes past the brink of reason.
For fans of the Florida-born’n’raised Cook, a Grand Ole Opry regular, SiriusXM Outlaw Country hostess and David Letterman favorite, Exodus of Venus will be something of a shock. If she maintains the tang of her drawl, what emerges – beyond Cook’s always vibrant and vivid sense of detail – is a song cycle soaked in turpentine, musk and honey.
From the sweltering tumble of B-3 on the funky, shuffling “Methadone Blues” to the elegiac dignity of “Tabitha Tuder’s Mama” and the Velvet Underground on fire bristle of “Brokedown in London on the M25,” Cook’s shouldering a deeper passion for the state of living today – and the crashing into the wall reality we all go through. If in the past Cook relied on wit and a certain dogpatch charm, Venus commands a raw knuckled truth that’s even more searing.
“There hasn’t been a lot to laugh about,” confesses the effervescent songwriter who once penned “It Takes Balls To Be A Woman” with equal parts Dolly Parton pluck and Loretta Lynn brio. “Things have been heavy and dark, and I feel really different. I aspire to be more than clever or dark or poignant, but to be honest. I want that to supersede everything.
“Emotionally, mentally, physically – it’s all been tested,” she continues, “and it set me up straight. It was hard, but it’s a good thing. Really hard lessons in resilience… All of it is in the record.”
That resilience rises like steam from the narcotic “Dyin’,” as Cook professes her by any means necessary strength, “Gonna be a diamond, gonna make hay/ If you don’t like it, gonna do it anyway/ Gonna put on the pistols, gonna cause a scene/ Gonna goddamn save the queen…” Flowing from there to the attenuated starkly haunted “Evacuation,” a slow build of defiance that eschews the easy for holding onto one’s roots – and casting a parallel with New Orleans’ own spirit that mines a deep desire to live, die and celebrate where one’s essence lies.
“During the years when family was dying and houses were burning down and I was in divorce court and David Letterman was calling and doing shows with Anthony Bourdain, the whiplash was almost too much,” Cook admits. “To keep up with all this great stuff, while I’d been sheltered for such a long time from tragedy, it transforms you. It really does.”
Cook emerged a tougher, wiser woman. If her years as a rough stock Minnie Pearl, part comedienne, part chronicler of life beyond the urban hipeoisie, had cast her first glass of champagne ebullience as a sparkling presence of hillbilly authenticity, Exodus of Venus suggests a woman tapping into the force of her true power. Frank, stumbling, angry, exhausted, triumphant, she owns the ragged edges, the torn seams and worn thin places.
Joined by hard country soul singer Patty Loveless on “Straight Jacket Love,” she catcalls a frantic surrender, “On and off the wagon/Lighting fire to grease/Knives are made for stabbing/Arms are made for peace…” as the CMA Female Vocalist maintains perfect mountain harmony. “I blind emailed her management, fingers crossed – because I heard her voice all over this record – then sent her two or three songs, saying, ‘This is my record. If you hear anything…’
“She honed right in on ‘Straight Jacket Love.’ Maybe it felt like some real dark Appalachian kind of thing. She has such authentic texture and power when she sings. She shows me what I’m trying to do…”
Not that Cook needs any teaching. A kid singer in her late-in-life parents’ country music aspirations, she learned bar life early – and getting by with a pretty smile and a good line. Her mother – diagnosed with uterine cancer at 42 while pregnant with Elizabeth – and “raging alcoholic Daddy” had big plans.
“I’m the miracle child sent to heal my father, and I was bewildered by that. I was a princess, but the king was a monster. And if things weren’t okay, I was failing.”
After years of getting by on charm, with dysfunction part of the family’s functionality, it all came apart in Cook’s hands. But in the wreckage of death and divorce, Cook found liberation and emancipation.
“I’m not trying to be the good girl anymore, and that brought some joy to all of it. I almost care more – or different,” she explains. “These songs are more poignant. They’re honest, and all about compassion or grace. For myself, and from a place of experience. Not that any of it was wrong, but I look back and have pride for all that happened and what I’ve survived.”
On “Cutting Diamonds,” Cook tosses the declaration “She has no line on polished pearls/Those are for the proper girls…” like confetti. Then on the kick’n’snare’n’piano roll underscored “Orange Blossom Trail,” she kicks up a bit of savory dust, with the celebratory toast, “Players talk while Thieves set sail/It’s the fragrant air of the underbelly/ On the Orange Blossom Trail…”
“Living on the shady side, there’s a comfort level I have in that kind of environment,” Cook offers. “That’s where the reckless or the brave both say, ‘Yeah, why not?’ I’m doing what I’m supposed to do – (for me, writing these songs) is a necessity. It’s the only power, the only tool, the only weapon I have.
“Listen! We’re going from Little Feat to REM, then put Appalachian harmonies on it. It’s all funky grooves with dark guitars, burning guitars. People were tweeting me, ‘Are you keeping it country?’ And the truth is: No, I’m keeping it real. Not to a genre, but to what these songs are.
“It’s an imperfect balancing act: a lesson in compassion and grace and tolerance. You know, all these songs are either requiring it or exhibiting it.”
Cook laughs as she says this, knowing full well it’s in banging into the furniture and stumbling down the halls that one learns to walk through the dark.
“Get out there and make mistakes – and don’t apologize! I’m not ashamed. This happened – and I’ll tell you all about it.”
MY AMERICAN DREAM …
“Will Hoge didn’t really need to release a new album in 2018. His most recent, Anchors, came out last August, reaching No. 6 on Billboard Heatseekers and the Top 20 on the Indie chart. He’d toured the United States and Europe, and could’ve settled in from there. But there was something he couldn’t stop thinking about: his children.
Border police. Political corruption. Anti-intellectualism. Poverty. Gun control. A broken education system. Indifference to others’ suffering. Each of these things weighed on Hoge, and he confronts them all head-on in My American Dream, which will come with a copy of the U.S. Constitution printed with the lyrics in both the LP and CD (out October 5th on Edlo/Thirty Tigers).
“Those things kept me up at night — and this record was less expensive than therapy,” he says, laughing. “Silence couldn’t be a part of my deal anymore.” and Hoge dealt with his fears the only way he knows how, by making music. The result is the fiercest, angriest, and most heartfelt collection of songs he’s released. Eight songs of rabble-rousing political commentary that turns a critical eye on the crisis of conscience and culture threatening to tear apart his country, the album is Hoge’s impassioned portrait of what he holds dear — and what we all might risk losing.
“My kids and their future, that’s the biggest thing for me. My boys are 11 and 7, they’re happy and healthy kids, and I feel lucky for that every day,” says Hoge, who’s wife is a teacher at the same school that their sons attend in Nashville, Tennessee. “Every morning at 7 o’clock, everything I care about in the world goes to one building. It takes one knucklehead with a gun going into that one building to ruin all that for me.”
The first song that Hoge completed was inspired directly by the specter of school shootings and the inept response of politicians: “Thoughts & Prayers” (released as a single and named as one of the Top 25 Songs of 2017 by Rolling Stone Country) is an acoustic ballad in which he asks, “Why don’t you do your job up there? Keep your thoughts and prayers.” “Sadly, it seems that “thoughts and prayers” is America’s new slogan” says RS. It’s a raw, fiery song with just Hoge and his guitar, belting out his frustrations in the recording booth. Production wise, It’s a stark contrast to the straight, no-holds-barred rock and roll of the rest of the album, though the inextinguishable spirit remains the same throughout and the urgency of the music comes through in every note.
Hoge drives home the sentiment on the searing album opener “Gilded Walls”.
“Well another group of kids in high school dead
But you’re still at your golf course teeing off at nine
People marching in the streets trying to find a little peace
You sit around spouting more bullsh*t online”
Listen to the thumping beat of “Nikki’s a Republican Now” or the crunchy solidarity of “Stupid Kids” and it’s clear Hoge feels the release of cranking the amps up to 11. Hoge credits the big rock sound on My American Dream, to the red hot playing of his touring band and the intense angst caused by what’s happening in our country. With Will in the producers chair, he along with Thom Donavan (lead guitar), Chris Griffiths (bass) and Allen Jones (drums) hunkered down in Studio B at Nashville’s historic Sound Emporium and knocked out the entire album in just 3 days. He then enlisted long time trusted collaborator and Grammy Award winning engineer, Ray Kennedy, to handle the final mixes.
Hoge has never been afraid to wade into political territory, like with 2004’s The America EP (“Bible Vs. Gun,” “Hey Mr. President (Anyone But You)”) or 2012’s Modern American Protest Music (“Ballad of Trayvon Martin,” “Jesus Came to Tennessee”) and the point of this new material is to continue to push Hoge — and his listeners — even further outside of the comfort zone. That meant coming to terms with parts of his own past that he wasn’t proud of. When speaking about the song “Still a Southern Man”, Hoge notes “I grew up in a town where the high school mascot, the Franklin Rebels, had a rebel flag. I was the guy that brought the rebel flag to football games. I thought it was awesome because it was our school,” he remembers. “I was a dumb, small-town, sheltered kid. It never entered my mind that this was racist because I wasn’t racist, so how could this be wrong? I never considered the dark history, It was just a mascot to me, I realized later It was a long, awful nightmare to many others.”
More often than not, though, Hoge puts himself in someone else’s shoes, be it the homeless heartland worker who watched his job prospects head overseas on “My American Dream” or the Mexican immigrant crossing the border to provide for his family on “Illegal Line.” At their core, both songs are about empathy. “At the end of the day, that’s really what folks are after, is just to be treated with some respect. Paired back to back, “My American Dream” and “Illegal Line” form the emotional core of the album, with the latter song taking on all the more significance in light of the heartbreaking separation of families so tragically revealed in the 24-hour news cycle.
He’s grateful for the commercial success and Grammy nominations that songs such as “Even if It Breaks Your Heart” “Middle of America” and “Strong” have received, but even more important than the commercial success is the freedom to stand up for his convictions and put them into his music when the time calls for it. ”If I’m going to alienate folks then I guess it’s doing its job. If they aren’t willing to be challenged, if they don’t like the songs, then don’t buy the record. It’s that simple.”
What’s more, Hoge isn’t the type to talk the talk without walking the walk. He’s an avid activist, lending his time and resources to raise awareness and money for Believe in Service (a Nashville based PAC who supports candidates in 8 key Senate races) and is a member of Everytown for Gun Safety’s Music Council, a part of the Creative Council, founded and chaired by Julianne Moore. His social media pages are a microcosm of sorts for the wider conversations taking place in the world today, as he challenges his fans to not shy away from the important questions that need to be asked.
With My American Dream, Hoge hopes that others will follow his lead, see the world through someone else’s eyes, and maybe — just maybe — begin to fix the mess we’re living in.