Elizabeth Cook has never been one to hold back — not in the frank tales she revealed of her life and family during numerous appearances on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” not in the homey yarns she spun on her Sirius XM morning radio show “Apron Strings” and especially not on her soul-baring 2016 album “Exodus of Venus.”
A critically lauded country music renegade who is right at home channeling a subversive rock or folk inspiration if the spirit hits, Cook sees no point in hiding any personal truth, dark or otherwise, from anyone willing to give her songs a listen.
“I’m very forthcoming musically,” said Cook, who returns to town for a solo concert Thursday at The Burl. “That’s kind of the whole point. I just don’t see where I’m doing any service with my artistry if I’m holding back. We’re all here to comfort each other through our experiences and gain a deeper understanding. I mean, it’s sort of my job.”
Cook takes her work quite seriously on “Exodus of Venus,” an album cut in the aftermath of myriad personal hurdles — divorce, the deaths of family members, a family home burning down and a stint in rehab. The effects of each are worn like battle scars in a parade of proud, coarse electric songs whose titles do little to mask their sentiments — “Slow Pain,” “Straightjacket Love,” “Dyin’” and “Methadone Blues” — before the album concludes with a meditation of pure country anguish, “Tabitha Tuder’s Mama” that recalls, vocally and stylistically, Emmylou Harris’s finest work.
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“If I’m any good at this, it’s because what I do is instinctive and it’s instinctive because I’m going down a rabbit hole for myself. Hopefully, that becomes relatable on the other side to other people. It’s absolutely and totally cathartic. I listen to it and I’m surprised by it. I found a lot of it to also be prophetic in things that played out since those songs were written and recorded. So it’s, first and foremost, self-serving.”
“Exodus of Venus” serves as a dynamic addition to a career that has clocked literally hundreds of performances on the Grand Ole Opry, collaborations with such Americana heroes as John Prine, Jason Isbell and Steve Earle and a 2012 trio performance here in Lexington with Midnight Oil mainstay Bones Hillman as her bassist (a show notable for, among other things, concluding not with a perhaps expected classic country cover but a lullaby-like reading of the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning”).
But it was Letterman that proved one of Cook’s greatest supporters. Taken by unvarnished and very human stories about, among other subjects, her moonshine running father and his eventual incarceration, the comedian and talk host invited Cook back on “The Late Show” numerous times prior to his retirement in 2015.
“That was really cool and encouraging, but also very surprising to me,” Cook said. “It was very out of the blue. I was pretty shocked, especially at first. I couldn’t understand why I being put in that position of being asked questions and stuff. But I later became very humbled by it and, I guess, flattered by his attention about how he felt connected to me when he listened to me on the radio. I really think he wanted to introduce me to a wider audience.”
When asked about the influences that went into her country-conscious songs, Cook doesn’t point to a specific artist or recording. Her gateway into the world of songwriting and performance began at home.
“I had grown up with my mother and father being musical, watching them having a band and seeing how music was just a way of life for them and probably their greatest comfort and outlet for joy and solace. I think, by tradition, it became all that to me, too.
“So when I had an opportunity to start mining out what I would be doing for a living in that direction, it wasn’t so much that I saw the Beatles on ‘Ed Sullivan’ like Tom Petty did. I didn’t have that type of moment. For me, it was about coming up in an environment that was saturated by people directly around me making music all the time.”