Katie Cook has been a staple on Country Music Television since 2002, hosting various series and specials such as CMT Most Wanted Live, the MWL concert series, MWL Star, MWL Stacked and the popular weekly entertainment magazine show, CMT Insider.
But her experience with country music is actually three-fold: along with being embedded in the industry as a television host and interviewer, she’s also the daughter of Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Roger Cook, and she’s both a singer and songwriter herself – she released an album in 2000 as part of a band called Reno and continues to hone her songwriting skills. Cook took some time to share with Country Universe her opinions on the state of country music, the evolution of CMT and her recent White House visit, among other topics.
Seetharam: You’ve grown up around different cultures and lifestyles, having lived overseas in London. How has that shaped your perspective on country music?
Cook: That’s a good question. I honestly think when I was younger living in Nashville, I didn’t fully understand the appeal of country music until I moved back to England after high school. And then I moved back again in my mid 20s to work on music and I found myself missing Nashville so much, and when I really tried to become a songwriter myself, I realized how difficult it was to write a great, melodic, catchy, hooky, 3-minute song that tells a story, that can wrap an entire interesting story up and make a point in 3 minutes. It’s extraordinarily difficult and it’s something that country is known for, and I don’t feel it exists in such a powerful way in any other musical genre I’ve experienced anywhere else in the world.
I think I had to get away from Nashville and the country music scene to really look back and realize how strong the writers are here, and how incredible the players are. Because very often as a younger person in Nashville, I would listen to stuff from elsewhere. You know, I’d listen to more alternative music coming out of England and stuff, but when I really got into the music scene over there, I was like, “No one plays like they do in Nashville.” The pickers, you know, you don’t get that kind of quality anywhere in the world, I don’t think, so again I think being part of these different cultures helped me look back on Nashville and appreciate it that much more.
I have to ask about your father because he’s really a fantastic songwriter. Between him working with such high profile artists and you interviewing such high profile artists, what kind of conversations do you two have?
You know, we never talk about music. In fact, we’ve tried to write so many songs together, and I suppose we’ve completed a few, but you know, when he and I get together, it seems to turn to any other subject but music. I think because we’re so close and there’s so many other things going on in the family and with friends and stuff that the conversation always leads elsewhere.
We’re both really opinionated, and we don’t necessarily agree on everything musically either. He’ll say, “Oh, I heard this song on the radio the other day by such and such. I couldn’t stand it. I thought it was awful,” and I’m like, “Really? That’s my new favorite song.” So, we just have such different opinions that we’ve just kind of learned to keep our musical lives separate. But that’s not to say he’s not completely supportive, and he watches the shows I do, and I try to listen to all of his new songs. But for the most part, we’re just dad and daughter.
You mentioned you liked some alternative music when you were younger – it seems like your musical taste stretches across many genres, not just country music. What do you think of the current country music that’s infused with other sounds, like rock or pop?
Well, you know, there’s two sides of the argument. Some people say, “Well country’s got to move forward,” and other people would say, “Why is it changing? Keep it traditional.” I really see both sides of it. I probably prefer it when somebody has a real appreciation of traditional country and then mixes it in with things you don’t expect them to. And that can even be an artist like Beck – that doesn’t necessarily even have to be a country artist. I kind of probably lean more to liking that type of thing more than someone who’s just trying to sell me a rock song as a country song. I think that’s just…I don’t know. That’s not my favorite style. It’s almost like bad 80s rock being regurgitated and labeled country music. So you know, I don’t typically have a music collection that reflects that kind of modern country.
But I have absolutely no boundaries as an artist, as a writer, as a music lover. I mean, nothing frightens me at all about loving country music and mixing it with other things or driving it forward, in even bizarre ways. I’m like, “Bring it on!” I love music, period. I personally do really love country music because I think the playing is magnificent. I think the story telling is magnificent. I think there’s just something so romantic about unfortunately an almost lost way of life in America, and I think I’m very drawn to do that, but I wouldn’t necessarily call myself one of those people that would be guarding country against change. I don’t think I’m that person at all. In fact, I think the more people that can discover it, the better.
Absolutely. That’s my philosophy as well. What about all these female artists who are breaking barriers in country music? You’re a female musician yourself – what’s your take on them?
I think it’s fantastic. I really, really love that there are so many young females out there now that play all different kinds of instruments. You know, you’ve always had a few of those in the past, but when I was younger, you had like Sheila E. You had Joan Jett. You definitely had a few artists that played. And of course, you had Barbara Mandrell, who played everything. And she was just a hero because she literally played every instrument: drums, saxophone, keyboard, everything.
But I think more likely now, a young girl’s going to grow up and be like, “Yeah it’s just no big deal to pick up the guitar and learn how to play and write a song. Taylor Swift does it.” It’s just obviously such a more common sight now, and I just think that’s a wonderful thing. Because too often in the past a woman was just supposed to stand at the mic and look pretty. And there’s nothing wrong with that but women take to playing just as easily as men, and I think they’re going to be more encouraged now because of this young crop of lovely ladies that play and sing and write. It’s fantastic.
Let’s talk CMT a bit. Earlier in the decade, CMT played an important role in popularizing roots music, with artists like Alison Krauss and Nickel Creek. What drove that, and why do you think there’s been a shift away from that now?
Yeah. I think everything’s cyclical. Obviously at one point, that kind of sound would be all you would have heard, practically, on the Grand Ole Opry and WSM years ago. And country’s always going to shift in and out of different things. It’ll all come back around. Right now it is kind of more of a maybe rock-edged type of thing. Look at how big Gretchen Wilson was, and now, if anything, Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood kind of slid into her position, and they’re more slick in their production. It’ll come back around. You know, it always does.
One thing that I thought was so interesting – the first time I interviewed Loretta Lynn was backstage at the Opry. And we weren’t on camera, and we were just kind of chatting, and I said, “I want to know what your take is on country and where it’s going.” And she said, “Oh you know, it’s always going to be going somewhere different and that’s fine. Back in the day, everyone gave Patsy Cline so much grief for going pop.” And it was so interesting to hear her say that because I would not have labeled her a pop artist, but when I think about it, at the time, what she was doing was very pop for most country ears. And yet now we would look back and consider her such a traditional artist, and anyone who sounds like Patsy Cline now would be considered hard-core, country traditional. It’s just interesting, isn’t it? To get that different perspective.
I think it’ll all come back around. If you get too much of any one thing, you’re going to crave the other. The grass is always greener. Things are a little less acoustic right now but it’ll all come back.
That’s an interesting perspective both you and Loretta have, and I think many people would agree. But it does seem like CMT as a channel has evolved over the years into something different. There’s a little more pop culture on there now, more television shows and movies, and a little less music. Do you think it’s moving in a positive direction?
Well, yes and no. I love some of the programming, but I’m just a music person, so I’m always going to wish that there was more music. It’s very interesting what people watch, what they tune into. Because we can run music programs and get very low ratings, and then run a rerun of Nanny 911 and get massive ratings.
So, although I personally would rather see music and videos all day, I can understand some of the programming decisions because like any business, we want to stay on the air, and we want to be able to afford to do these big award shows and great big music programs like CMT Giants, that honor Alan Jackson and Reba [McEntire] and all these wonderful artists. And you can’t pay for those unless you’ve got people tuning in, and for some strange reason, people will tune in sometimes in very large numbers to programming that’s not always music-related. So, it’s a catch-22. I can see the business side of it, but I personally tune in more to the actual music programs because that’s what I’m interested in.
What’s your favorite music video of the decade? Or do you have one?
Wow. Hmm, there are so many to choose from. I tend to live very much in the moment, so usually what’s on my mind is something that I saw very recently. I can tell you one of my favorite songs of the past decade was probably Little Big Town’s “Boondocks.”
I love that song.
And I thought it was a video that perfectly matched the song. I loved the extras that they had in it. I loved the way it was cut together, the editing. I loved the scenery. I loved how cool the band looked in it. That was a favorite. Gosh, what was that other…why am I going blank…it’s because I’ve just been staining my floor and I’m probably high from the chemicals. That first really big Jason Aldean song. “Hicktown!” Jason Aldean’s “Hicktown” – that’s the one I’m thinking of. It’s kind of similar to the “Boondocks,” Little Big Town kind of vibe. I just thought they were both really fresh videos and those were probably a couple of my favorites.
Is there a single quality that you look for in a good music video?
I think because I’ve been doing TV for awhile now I really look at editing, and I look at how things time out. You know, how a cut or a certain dance moves really times out with the beat of a song. “Pickin’ Wildflowers” by Keith Anderson – that was probably one of my favorite videos of the last decade. I know I’m giving you a few instead of picking just one. I just thought it was really sexy and the way the dancers again moved with the beat. I think you can be a great video director, but a really great music video director to me needs to have a great sense of the music. They need to be really passionate about the song and really feel the beat of it and edit accordingly. That’s just something I personally really like in a song.
When you’re interviewing these artists on the red carpet or on any of the shows you host, you’re essentially a musician interviewing a musician. Does that affect the way you interview? Do you ever wish you could give advice?
Well, I wouldn’t dream of giving advice, but I do think it affects the way I interview people. If anything, it probably – I don’t know, in some way it helps. But I think it probably hinders me more because I know sometimes a question that they might not really want to answer, or something that I know they’ve probably been asked a million times, and you know, I always try to come at it with an understanding of how they might answer something. But sometimes a question just needs to be asked because it makes good television and it’s what the viewers at home want to know. But I might inside be squirming a little bit.
I can’t really think of a perfect example right now. But even something as simple as, “When you did that duet with so and so, what was it like being in the studio with them?” I know there’s a really good chance they weren’t in the studio together. Because when you live in Nashville and you work around music yourself, you have a good understanding of how these things work, and you know that schedule-wise, it’s very rare that duets even happen in the same room with people. But you know, it’s important to ask that because it’s what people at home might be wondering. So, I don’t know, I think sometimes I do see an interview slightly differently.
And I understand Dolly Parton is your favorite artist?
Oh I love her. She’s just my favorite – not just musically, but just…
Your favorite person.
Yes, favorite person to interview, definitely.
Do you have a Dolly interview or quote that stands out for you?
You know, well, yeah, I’ve got a lot. It seems like every single time I’m with her I’m like, “OK, that tops the last one.” She always says something that tops the last one.
She’s just fabulous. And hilarious.
The funniest interview, honestly, was, the very first time I ever met her. I did like a whole half-hour, sit-down live show with her called [CMT] Most Wanted Live, and before we went out, we were comparing outfits. And of course she had on a to-die-for, fabulous outfit. Oh, it was pink and yellow and princess-like and just made her look amazing. And I was kind of joking that my outfit wasn’t very interesting compared to hers, and I must have made some comment like, you know, “Maybe I need to put more of a push-up bra on. I’m going to look like a child sitting next to you.” And she laughed and she said, “Your boobs look great!”
Well later on we were sitting there in front of the audience, the whole crowd, and I think I took like an audience question about, does she ever feel sorry for flat-chested women because she’s so well-endowed or whatever. And she laughed and she said, “No we’re all beautiful,” and then she said to the audience, “Look! Look at her boobs! Don’t you think they’re great?” – pointing to me. “Don’t you think she has lovely boobs?” And you know I just absolutely went bright red.
Oh I was fanning myself. I broke a sweat. I was laughing so hard. I could not believe I was on camera with Dolly Parton and she’s commenting on my boobs. It was just one of the funniest moments in my life. I’m not sure anything’s ever going to top Dolly Parton complimenting me on my chest (laughs).
Dolly is clearly a hold-nothing-back kind of person, but have you ever interviewed an artist who you think is misunderstood by the public? Maybe you got a different perspective when you met him or her in person?
Yeah. There are certain artists that I can tell are a little bit shy. I mean, obviously Alan Jackson, Billy Currington – some of the guys are really, painfully shy, and they get on camera and they’re just quiet and, you know, they seem very unsure of themselves. And then the minute the camera goes off, you can have the most normal conversation with them. And I always think, “Oh why can’t you do that when the little red light comes on?” So yeah, there’s definitely artists that seem very different off camera, and I wonder if their real personality comes across, but you know what? They’re doing well and they have fans, so evidently people do understand them. But yeah, some of those shy guys are the ones that really wear me out. I’m like, “Come on, loosen up!”
Shifting gears a little, you were recently at the White House for “An Evening of Country Music.” That must have been an amazing experience. What was it like?
Yeah! It was incredible. It was really exciting to see an entire day at the White House devoted to country music. Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss and Charley Pride were there – all great ambassadors for country music. To actually be in that ballroom and see the President get up and give a wonderful introduction to these country artists and talk about country, and how it’s such an important part of American culture was, you know – I really got the chills. It was a wonderful moment. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to go back to the White House, so I really was kind of absorbing it all.
We got to see the press room, which was tiny. And it’s so interesting because, you know, you see something on television and then you see it in person, how different it is. And we were at the back of the room, so when the show was over, we were actually the first to walk out, and they led us down a hallway and then just kind of left us on our own to find our way out. And I was like, “We’ve been let loose in the White House!”
That’s not something you can say every day!
It was incredible. We weren’t really let loose, of course. It was all under very controlled supervision, but it felt like we were running goofy and loose in the White House, and that was very exciting. But yeah, it was a very proud moment for country.
Did you get to interact at all with the President?
I didn’t get to hang out with Obama and Michelle and the girls, but I did get to see the First Dog. One of the White House workers, I guess — I don’t know what the right term would be– but somebody was walking the dog, and he’s beautiful. He’s big. For some reason I thought he was still a little puppy. But he’s quite large and he’s a good-looking dog. He’s got quite a yard to roam around in.
I hear you’re an expert tweeter – or rather, I see you’re an expert tweeter. What do you enjoy about twitter?
Well I’m actually fairly new to it. I like getting to know people. I like getting very kind of down-to-earth questions from people, and I think what I find refreshing is that I assume the only reason anybody would want to talk to me or hear from me is to get like country music gossip, and that actually doesn’t seem to be the case. A lot of people are like, “Where do you like to eat? How old’s your kid now? Do you like being a mother?”
More personal questions.
Yeah. It seems like people just are more curious about who you really are as a person, and I find that really refreshing. I go to work and put on the false eyelashes and do my hair all fancy and put on the nice outfits and everything, but when I come home, I’m just like anybody else. I’m sitting around in my Old Navy sweats and eating something I shouldn’t be eating and prying my eyeballs on the computer. And we’re all kind of the same when we just get into that mode, and I just like connecting with people on that really normal level. That’s a lot of fun for me.
Do you tweet at other artists? Or mostly fans?
You know, I don’t know who all these people are that read it. I just kind of get on there and send a message out and wonder where it goes. It goes into cyberspace and I don’t really know who’s reading it but people keep signing on, so I guess I’m doing something right.
When you’re not tweeting, what are some of the projects you’re working on that you’re excited about?
Well I have a children’s book called “Little Big Benny,” and that has recently been edited. I kind of have it out with a lot of kids right now. A lot of kids are reading it and giving me their feedback. I’m trying to really nail down exactly what age group it’s for. I’m really hoping by the end of the year to be shopping that around to publishers. So that’s taking up a lot of free time.
I’m a mother and that’s an ongoing project right there. She’s going to be three in a couple of weeks. And we decided to do our kitchen. We just ripped our whole kitchen from the 40s out, which was actually kind of cool looking but had absolutely no storage or work space. So we just completely gutted the middle of our house and decided to pretty much do it ourselves so that we could save money, and at this point I think I maybe would rather just be in debt (laughs).
That sounds extremely chaotic.
It’s been really chaotic. I’ve been making meals in a toaster oven for almost six months. But you know, there are some people in the world who don’t even have a toaster oven, so I’m not going to complain.
But there’s always other stuff going on. I’m always writing. I’m always working on creative stuff. I’m hoping to launch a T-shirt campaign –I’m not going to say anymore about it– but I’m hoping to have something really fun available in the next month. Very creative T-shirt thing. So yeah I’m kind of – I consider myself a creative person. I’m not happy unless I’m working on something. So I never really have a day off, but that’s just the way I like it.