Eli Cook’s High-Dollar Gospel testifies to the power of the blues
What do you do when you can play straight blues or Hendrix style hard rock with equal ease and finesse? On the seventh album of his career the phenom from Nelson County, Virginia reins in his inner guitar god and makes his most focused roots blues album yet. High-Dollar Gospel finds Cook showcasing his acoustic mojo and the result is the most satisfying record of his career.
“The album title was a phrase that got stuck in my head. It resonated with me. It brings up, for me anyway, images of the south, religion and politics, and money.” Speaking by phone from his home outside of Charlottesville, Cook comes off reserved, almost shy. This is a vivid contrast from the confident stage presence the lanky thirty-one-year-old projects when he has his trusty resonator in his hands. One gets the sense that he would rather let his guitar speak for him.
Cook’s public profile seems split between his solo acoustic gigs and his power trio shows, the latter representing his affection for the music of Hendrix and Robin Trower. But Cook was equally enamored of the picking of Doc Watson and Merle Travis. “The last few years I’ve done more solo shows. I wanted to have an album at shows that sounded closer to the performance the audience just heard. And I wanted to connect to the Americana crowd that appreciates the crossroads where blues, Appalachian, and country intersects.”
The album will be released on 08/18/17. On that same day Cook will play a show in Culpeper, Virginia at the Packard Campus of the Library of Congress. Cook has a program in the works that will shine a light on folk blues, early acapella songs, church music and prison field songs. The project, still in development, aims to be interactive, with some archival film interspersed with Cook's live performance.
At thirteen Cook was well on his way to learning guitar. By sixteen he was playing community centers and churches. “I was too young to play in bars. But playing around the area opened doors for me and I got invited to play some tent revivals. Here was this skinny long-haired white kid playing old spirituals in front of a mostly black congregation. Later, when I was older, I got to play in a trio in bars, and get paid for it. I guess you get paid in the afterlife for singing gospel.”
By eighteen he was opening for the likes of B.B. King. “I opened for him four or five times. I’ve opened for (the late) Johnny Winter, John Mayall, and Robert Cray.” In 2015 Blues Matters! Magazine listed Cook in its Writers Poll, placing him third in the Favorite International Blues Solo Artist category. “My plans include getting over to Europe, and getting on the festival circuit there. So far, the only time I’ve been outside the States is to Canada.”
High-Dollar Gospel kicks off with the slithery tones of Cook’s slide on “Trouble Maker.” Snaking up and down the frets, Cook sounds as menacing as a rattler coiled to strike as he sings:
Be my own trouble maker
be my one hip shaker
be my own trouble maker
love me like a .45
Set against an insistent bass drum Cook cuts loose, the freewheeling slide implying a manic relationship doomed to crash and burn. It‘s the sort of thing that needs the closure that only a long night alone with a bottle of bourbon can bring.
Cook’s rich baritone calls to mind the deep bottomless tones of John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, and he can bring the downright spooky when it is needed. “The Devil Finds Work” rumbles along at midtempo as Cook muses about finding “some other one to sing my song, it might not be tonight, but it won’t be long.” Cook is going to cut loose his lover and clearly has the upper hand in the affair.
The theme of broken down love leads into something more sinister on “Mixing My Medicine.” This time out Cook is on the wrong side of things as it is clear he is not in control of the situation. A languid blues dirge, Cook’s character is doing some heavy medicating.
Who been mixing my medicine
its tearing me up inside
believe I got twice the dose of heartache
any doctor would prescribe
Can’t follow doctor’s orders
I don’t know which ones to take
Cook has been known to favor a twelve-string acoustic on certain songs and the choice here is spot on. As the song nears its end we hear Cook discover only too late that “this remedy is far too strong/ well, you’ve been mixing my medicine/now I know my time ain’t long.”
“Pray for Rain” is slow rocker that finds Cook stating “sometimes a broken wing is all you need.” The electric guitar is reminiscent of Clapton’s take on “The Sky is Crying.” One of the best tracks is a cover of Muddy Waters. “Can’t Lose What You Never Had” is, in Cook’s able hands, a haunting tale of loss and psychic trauma. Cook’s voice in the chorus soars above the acoustic guitar that underpins the track. Added to that is the eerie, tortured electric guitar that signals a man whose heart and mind are unraveling. In Cook’s version, the very survival of the central character is in question. Turn up the volume on this one, and call a friend to come and sit with you and help you get through it. This one is not for the faint-hearted.
“Mother’s Prayer” is a tender ballad of unconditional love. “It’s probably the most personal song I have ever written. My older sister passed suddenly, a few years ago. She had four children. I think of the effect on my mother in all that. This one hits close to home.,” Cook says. The simple percussion and the mournful guitar notes emphasize the sense of loss, and the enduring nature of maternal love.
There are two more covers in addition to the Muddy Waters song. Roosevelt Sykes’ revenge song “44. Blues” is rendered with reverence and affection while Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” is more entreating than demanding. The last two tracks are originals and continue the theme of relationship. “Month of Sundays” finds the main character torn between leaving and staying. Cook’s narrator declares, “that look in your eyes I won’t chase it anymore, just wait at every window, wish at every door.” Hooked by her changing emotions he can’t completely let go, confessing, “the only thing that’s sure is that every time you want a little less I want a whole lot more.”
The album ends on an upbeat note, with Cook lost in a new love, seeing light at the end of the tunnel. Here Cook saves the best for the last testifying that he’s found a love that makes sense of all the loss and loneliness. Trading a mandolin for his resonator and his faithful twelve-string, Cook goes all head over heels, diving in unchecked, casting care to the wind. Riding on the rhythm of the mandolin he bounces back into the land of the living:
Everybody needs just a little more smile
everybody sees but they live in denial
everybody scream every once in a while
but I got love if I got nothing but you
losing all the friends that I never made
money that I spent that I should have saved
maybe I could spin in an early grave
below or above, well,
I'll be dreaming of you
If not for you
my little darling
this world would drive me crazy
dancing like a fool
on the side of the road
and I’m gone…
The song is a triumphant return to the land of the living and the loving. Cook’s blues help him transcend what seems like the end and, through the joy of connection, he is able to rise again. Hot damn and hallelujah, this is what healing feels like. True redemption doesn’t deny the dark end of the street or the dark night of the soul. Instead it comes back around when we least expect it and catches us off guard when we think it’s all over, only to say there is another second chance waiting for us if we are courageous enough to reach for the brass ring. Boogie on, Mr. Cook, boogie on.