Eli Cook picked up the guitar one fortuitous summer when his older brother went to baseball camp. Cook’s brother had been taking lessons and left an electric guitar—which actually belonged to their older sister—behind in Nelson County.
“It seemed cool,” says Cook of the idea of playing guitar. He picked up the instrument and worked out Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and “Communication Breakdown” on the low strings. By the time his brother returned from camp, Cook, only about 13 at the time, had exceeded his brother’s skill and thereby officially inherited the instrument.
Now just 31, Cook has accomplished much since he taught himself those riffs. He was making a living playing music before he graduated from high school, and in February 2008, a couple months shy of his 21st birthday, he opened for blues legend B.B. King at the Paramount Theater. He was named the No. 3 favorite international blues solo artist in Blues Matters! magazine’s 2015 writers poll. He tours frequently and plays regular gigs at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in New York City.
Most recently, Cook released his seventh album, High-Dollar Gospel.
But for all of his success, when Cook talks about his music, he almost never talks about himself. Sitting on a couch in C-VILLE Weekly’s office on a Friday afternoon in August and shaking loose the last drops of iced coffee from hollowed-out iced cubes, Cook talks instead about the long mythology of blues and roots music that had to happen before he could make High-Dollar Gospel.
Initially drawn in by Zeppelin’s hard- rocking blues and electric players like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Cook quickly retreated down the long, winding path of the blues, to acoustic blues artists like Mississippi Fred McDowell, Skip James, Robert Johnson and many, many others.
Cook, known for his slide guitar chops, talks about slide players like Elmore James (“King of the Slide Guitar”), Duane Allman and Derek Trucks. He’ll wax poetic about Robert Randolph’s lap steel, and how that instrument in particular has a very human vocal quality, “like a lady in church.” He’ll discuss Johnny Cash’s country songs that appealed to grunge rockers such as Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice in Chains and industrial heavyweight Nine Inch Nails. Stirring ice cubes around with a black plastic straw, he talks about New Orleans, St. Louis and Memphis.
After explaining that he’s included more Americana sounds, like mandolin and upright bass, on High-Dollar Gospel to explore a different set of influences and capture the essence of his live solo performances, Cook says, matter-of-factly, that he’s pretty sure the O, Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, produced by T Bone Burnett, is responsible for the re-emergence of roots and Americana music into mainstream music in the early 2000s.
“In a lot of ways, you think, ‘Oh, everything’s been done,’ and in many ways, it has,” says Cook. “But the more you learn and the more you listen to, the wider range of influence you can pull in.”
Take, for example, Muddy Waters’ “Can’t Lose What You Never Had,” one of three cover songs on the 11-track High-Dollar Gospel. It’s a weighty song that’s been “done to death, and for good reason,” says Cook—Waters is one of the best songwriters of all time. But in Cook’s hands, “Can’t Lose What You Never Had” becomes an acoustic grunge-rock ballad.
In writing original songs, Cook says he tries to stay away from the “me monster side of writing” and instead draws inspiration from common experiences that “give maneuverability to a listener’s perception.” On “Mixing My Medicine,” he sought to write a contemporary blues song anchored by interesting guitar work, a relevant storyline and language that one might not expect to find in a stereotypical blues-based tune. He says he’s always trying to work within a traditional framework while staying relevant for modern listeners.
And he’s still getting a blues rock tune in there every now and then, like with “Troublemaker” and “King of the Mountain,” which Cook sees as a “tripped-out, nighttime drive through the desert, sort of an out-of-your-head” song. “If I had my druthers, I’d be making rock records,” he admits.
As a musician steeped in a tradition formed by people playing guitars long before he was inspired to strum a power chord on that hand-me-down electric guitar in Nelson County, Cook knows how music is perhaps the ultimate connector.
Still, he’s surprised when fans come up to him after a show and share what his songs mean to them. Once, a man who’d lost his son to suicide mailed Cook a copy of the book he wrote about the experience, all because he deeply identified with one of Cook’s songs. “It’s just wild, the things that people will draw out of a song, and it’s all based in their experiences,” he says with a shrug of his shoulders, rattling the softening ice cubes. “And sometimes it’s something you would never think.”
“That’s the whole goal with music—you basically are communicating with people, having a conversation without having a conversation. And they feel like they can share themselves with you because they can relate.”