Elizabeth Cook kicks off her new album with "All the Time," a rolling and tumbling country song. Her twangy vocal and harmonies with Buddy Miller let you know she's locating herself just outside the mainstream of the country-music industry. If we didn't get that message clearly enough in her opening number, she invokes hip-hop gangsters and the movie Boogie Nights in the next song, "El Camino"; by the fourth song, she's making you wonder just how much the tune "Heroin Addict Sister" is autobiographical and how much is fiction.
You don't start competing with Carrie Underwood and Sugarland for big stadium tours and country-music awards with songs about heroin and joyriding with guys who do cocaine. But if you're good, you do something more than become the latest generation of country-music outlaw, and Cook is good in almost every song on Welder. She sings in a high-pitched curl of a voice that can suggest innocence she shrewdly contrasts with her lyrics, as in her jaunty novelty song "Yes to Booty."
The album's title, Welder, is taken from her father's working-class profession, and throughout the album, Cook hits all the country-music touchstones. Song about a working on a farm? Check. Rowdy song about drinking? Check. Song about Mama dying? Check. And just when you start thinking that Cook is a bit of a put-on artist, she gives you a first-rate honky-tonk duet with Dwight Yoakam called "I'll Never Know, or a beautiful ballad that resists any sort of easy classification, called "Not California."
Welder is the kind of album that certain sorts of country-music fans are going to buy and pass around like a talisman, valued by the initiated as impure stuff to be savored. Elizabeth Cook may be content with this sort of cult status. But in her best songs, she demonstrates the ability to transcend a cult career. Whether or not that even matters to her — well, that's a subject she could probably write a whole other album about.