TERRE HAUTE — Tim Carroll watched himself on national TV last Sunday, playing guitar alongside his wife, singer Elizabeth Cook.
He heard “CBS Sunday Morning” music critic Bill Flanagan describe Elizabeth’s new album as “a real breath of fresh air.” Flanagan compared her to Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton, adding another glowing review to a list that includes Rolling Stone, The Tennessean and the New York Times.
Carroll also is receiving good marks for a pair of compositions and the guitar work he contributed to her CD. Not bad for a guy who literally heard his calling as a kid growing up in West Terre Haute. (He once rode horseback through the woods toward the source of a cool sound, a rehearsing garage band.)
“It’s kind of rewarding to see some results that are right in front of you,” Carroll said of their moment on CBS last Sunday.
Yes, you could see Tim and Elizabeth on “CBS Sunday Morning” or read about them in Nashville’s The Tennessean, but you’ll probably not hear mainstream country radio play Cook’s new single. The obstacle isn’t necessarily the name of the song, which is also the title of her album — “Sometimes It Takes Balls To Be A Woman” or just “Balls” for short, so to speak.
Actually, the problem is that Cook’s recordings sound more like Loretta Lynn than Carrie Underwood. Though her disc is one of the feel-good hits of this summer, it’s too country for country.
“It’s a shame that Elizabeth Cook, who’s a real country artist who’s played the Grand Ole Opry 250 times, can’t get played on country radio,” said Traci Thomas of 31 Tigers Records, the hard-working, independent Nashville label created solely to handle “Balls.”
The song has cracked the top 10 of the Americana charts, bouncing up from No. 11 to No. 8 this week. Americana radio is a home for outside-of-the-box country artists, and “Balls” — with sprinklings of Carroll’s Merle-Haggard-meets-The-Clash leanings — is a perfect example.
And though Cook’s blonde image, playful Southern alto and gifted song writing dominates this 11-song album, her husband’s influences are clearly present. Carroll brought a rock ’n’ roll spirit to Nashville, after moving from West Terre Haute to Bloomington (where he played in a punk band, the Gizmos, while attending Indiana University), to New York City (where he played with the alt-country Blue Chieftans, while working on Wall Street). He soon developed a reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter, a musician’s musician, and a club-goer’s favorite.
“Everybody who was anybody in Nashville knew who Tim Carroll was,” Cook recalled.
He and Elizabeth met at a recording session in the mid-1990s. “He says he thought I was ‘wife material,’ which I’m not sure how I feel about that,” she joked.
Since they’ve been together, Carroll has performed alongside Cook at the Grand Ole Opry, in Ryman Auditorium and around the world, while also maintaining a steady stream of gigs with his own punk-country trio. He’s recorded four albums of his own and continues to write, but also is a rock of support for Elizabeth’s career, setting up sound equipment, playing a wicked guitar and driving their car. On Tuesday, they drove from their home in Nashville to North Carolina, where Elizabeth began a tour that will swing from Alabama to Colorado.
“He’s so selfless and so generous,” she said by cell phone, while Tim navigated through interstate traffic. “With his talent, I know deep in my heart, without his contributions, things wouldn’t be sitting where they are today.”
Take the song off “Balls” that really has the critics buzzing, “Sunday Morning.” She delivers a captivating, laid-back rendition of this 1967 song by Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Famers the Velvet Underground. Cook was born in 1972 in Wildwood, Fla., the daughter of a dad who learned to play bass while spending 11 years in prison for moonshining, and a mom who strummed banjos and mandolins in country bars.
Tim, 47, first exposed Elizabeth to Velvet Underground, pulling the band’s “Nico” album from a shoe box of cassettes in their basement. And after rehearsals for “Balls,” producer Rodney Crowell — a country artist who also produced CDs by Roseanne Cash and others — suggested including “Sunday Morning.”
“Tim has been a huge influence on me, and continues to be more and more so,” Elizabeth said.
Though Carroll says his own musical sensibilities are less “slick and clean” than Crowell’s, the veteran producer was eventually won over.
Crowell told the Nashville Scene, “I think Tim Carroll’s contributions were important. He brings a little punk to it, just a little sprinklin’ of punk attitude.”
Using classic country arrangements hinged more on fiddles than top-40 guitar fuzz. Cook, Carroll, Crowell and an assortment of Nashville musicians completed the album in three days. Despite that relatively brisk pace, the CD — Cook’s fourth — “might be getting closer and closer to her best work,” Tim said, taking his turn on the cell phone once they arrived in North Carolina.
The collection closes, fittingly, with a song they co-wrote, “Gonna Be,” followed by Elizabeth’s version of a hopeful tune Tim wrote and recorded in 2002 called “Always Tomorrow.” In “Gonna Be,” they write, “I’m not a has-been; I’m still a gonna-be. You just wait and see. You just wait and see. Keep looking out for me.”
In real life, Tim and Elizabeth have a schedule full of gigs ahead of them, “and we want more,” he said.
Two years ago, their travels brought them through Terre Haute, which Elizabeth called “a nostalgic experience” for Tim, whose family moved to Oregon after he’d graduated from West Vigo High School in 1977. Their tour detours also have taken them to Wildwood, Fla., a town her family — which included 11 children — left long ago, too. The struggles of life in the Deep South, as well as those in the years that followed, are fully expressed in “Sometimes It Takes Balls To Be A Woman.”
The latest dose of critical success sweetens their journey.
“It’s so great to have a partner in a marriage and to be able to share all of this with him,” Elizabeth said.
Mark Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (812) 231-4377.
TERRE HAUTE — Tim Carroll watched himself on national TV last Sunday, playing guitar alongside his wife, singer Elizabeth Cook.
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