Elizabeth Cook at the Tron Theatre - Saturday 15th January 2011
Richard Bull reports
For those of us with a particular interest in the country side of Celtic Connections, the first essential concert this year was Saturday's appearance by Elizabeth Cook, who's as country as it's possible to be.
But before Elizabeth took to the stage, the capacity crowd at the Tron enjoyed a fine set of songs from A.J. Roach, a native of Scott County, Virginia, but now resident (in the brief moments he's not on tour) in Brooklyn, New York. Early in his set he bemoaned the lack of poetry in music nowadays, and his work is a one-man argument for its reinstatement, with the "overwhelming sadness in this world" his main theme.
But there was cause for celebration as he wasn't one man alone – he was accompanied by his Celtic connection, the Edinburgh-based Irish musician, Nuala Kennedy. They met through the Burnsong project in 2008, and have developed into a sympathetic musical partnership with Nuala's flute, keyboards, shruti box and vocal harmonies softening A.J.'s high, lachrymose voice, guitar and banjo (which, in a twist on Woody Guthrie, bears the legend: "This banjo kills kittens.") Their self-deprecating banter also provided a nice foil to the sorrowful lyrics. "Where I come from they'd call this song a barn-burner,” said A.J., "a wrist-cutter." "You've got a few of them," observed Nuala. "They're my specialty," said A.J.
Following this pair, on come another: Elizabeth Cook and her accompanist/husband Tim Carroll, residents of Nashville, Tennessee, where Elizabeth is a regular on the Grand Ole Opry stage, and where I first encountered her in 2002 on a Radio Scotland recording trip.
Elizabeth filled the audience in on her family history: a hillbilly singer mother and a father who did time for running moonshine, each of whom had five children from previous marriages when they settled – and had Elizabeth – in Wildwood, Florida. Her family provides the subject matter for songs like Heroin Addict Sister, which you might expect to be mawkish, but it's a genuinely moving account of a loved one living life off the rails.
She draws on the female heroines of country music too, carrying the torch for Dolly, Loretta and Tammy, but updating them and pushing things that bit further. "Sometimes it takes balls to be a woman," runs the refrain of one of her songs.
In a wide-brimmed hat, which rendered useless my attempts to photograph her, and "pantyhose" purchased on Trongate for 99p, Elizabeth has a personality – and southern accent – to die for. When Tim took his solo spot, her cowboy boots were replaced by dancing shoes and a dance was duly tapped.
As she said herself, she's an "unequivocally American girl," but she provided a slight Celtic connection with a version of Richard and Linda Thompson's I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, which fitted her perfectly, and helped recreate Nashville's Lower Broadway on a rain-lashed Glasgow night.