Interviewing the Interviewer – CMT’s Katie Cook
To say that Katie Cook was born into the country music is to say it quite literally. Her father, Roger Cook, is a celebrated singer/songwriter–so much so that he’s been inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame. Roger penned songs for the likes of country icons Johnny Cash and Don Williams, but was most known in country circles for Crystal Gayle’s “You’ve Been Talking In Your Sleep.” Katie followed a similar path, taking a seat in the country artist chair before ever sitting in the host chair. Signed to Curb Records, she released an album under the band name Reno and remains an active songwriter.
But it is Country Music Television that associates Katie Cook with country music these days. Cook joined CMT in 2002 as co-host for the weekly series CMT Most Wanted Live. Since joining CMT, she has hosted many series and specials, including MWL Star, MWL Stacked and the MWL special concert series. Currently, she is hosting CMT’s weekly entertainment magazine CMT Insider.
KEN MORTON JR.: Have things calmed down a little there in Nashville and at the CMT studios after your big week with CMA Music Fest?
KATIE COOK: Yes, thankfully. It’s truly a wild and wonderful week. I really look forward to CMA Music Fest every year but at the end of it, I think everyone’s ready for a break.
KMJ: I would imagine that things are pretty chaotic for CMT that entire week.
KC: Yes, they are. And this year we made them twice as chaotic by holding our CMT Awards show right after CMA Music Fest had ended. It’ll always be a chaotic week, but we made it twice so for ourselves. Of course we had all of the artists here and we had a ton of fans here. And many decided to stay the extra day or two. It was pretty cool.
KMJ: Do all of the artists come through the studio more so that week?
KC: Yes.We had a ton of artists dropping in all week. And most of the artists live in town anyway, but they might be out on tour during the summer. But they all make a point of being here for that week.It’s a busy and wonderful time.
KMJ: Obviously, you come from a very rich country music heritage with your father being in the Hall Of Fame and growing up in a music household. What was it like growing up surrounded by all of that rich country sound?
KC: I don’t think as a child I even knew enough to appreciate it. It was only when I when I was older when I begun to realize that not everyone grows up having songs written in their living room. I really had to be older to appreciate it. My father is not the type to ever pass his records around. He never really talks about his accomplishments. He’s always completely focused on what he’s trying to accomplish next. The last song he wrote is always his favorite song and the next one he writes is going to be a big hit. He’s just so in the moment. I don’t think I even had an appreciation growing up for just how successful his songwriting had been. There just wasn’t a lot of evidence around the house. So as a child, I think I just naturally absorbed it and didn’t necessarily realize that it was unique. When I was older looking it back it was like, “Wow, that guy that’s been hanging around the house writing with Dad is actually a really well-known songwriter.” They were always successful–not just some guys. It all started to sink in more as an adult. I’m just so lucky to have been right around a music environment. It was never forced on me. I certainly didn’t have stage parents that forced me into the business. It was just natural after being around our house.
KMJ: Were you into country music growing up or did you have other music interests?
KC: I was all over the place. I have a brother who is five years older than me and from a really young age, was all about punk rock. Of course, I worshiped him and thought everything he did and liked was great. So we were both really into the punk rock scene up into my teenage years. And yet I kind of found myself drawn to bands that would mix some country elements into it. I liked these L.A. bands that liked Johnny Cash and rockabilly and incorporated some of those elements. I kind of found that I found myself into those artists the most. I went through that total punk stage and then when I started singing, everyone thought my voice was much more suited to pop music–really dance-oriented pop music. And I just kind of explored everything but ended up coming back to my roots growing up here in Nashville. Everything just came back here to Nashville and country.
KMJ: Did you have songwriting aspirations of your own growing up?
KC: I did. And I was so incredibly shy about it too. It’s hard to sing your first not-very-good songs to people that are incredibly good at what they do. I did end up getting my own publishing deal and then a record deal. And I finally found my own voice as a writer and a singer. But it took a long time. I was very shy about it, very much a late bloomer. But I got there in the end. I still write. I still wake up in the middle of the night with ideas and sit down right then and write them down. I keep saying that I’ll someday get around to making another record, but we’ll see.
KMJ: Reba’s not going to be cutting any of your songs on her new album?
KC: [Laughter] Boy, I wish she would! I consider songwriting somewhat of a conflict of interest now that I have the job at CMT. My dream was getting my songs cut by other artists. And I really did try to pursue that for awhile. But once I got the job at CMT, what was I going to do? After I’m done with an interview, say, “Hey, I’ve got a song I want you to hear.” It would be so incredibly uncool. I could maybe someday do my songs under a different songwriter name.
KMJ: You need a ghost writing name.
KC: Exactly. I never say never. If there was ever a chance to have some of my own songs cut, I think that many of them would work well in the country market. But for the most part, I’ve had to let that part of my career go. It would just be weird. I think artists would be uncomfortable around me if I was pitching music to them.
KMJ: You spent lots of time in London as a child. Did any of that music scene influence your own music?
KC: I think so. I was actually born in London. I moved from London here when I was five, but my brother who was five years older always loved the music. We would go back every summer or at Christmas and we were always playing lots of the music coming out of England–my brother specifically lots of the alternative stuff. I think it just gave me a broader view of music in general. I was never just raised with one kind of sound in the house. I really have to credit my brother and his tastes as much as my father. He’s a drummer and always kept my eyes open to what was out there as well as what was close to home. Spending a little bit of time each year back in England gave me a broader perspective. And not just in music. It was art, movies and fashion. It’s a big change from Nashville to London.
KMJ: Was your father okay with the punk leanings or was he excited that you were excited about music in general?
KC: He was always thrilled about whatever we were into. My dad is a bit of a rebel. He’s not your typical country writer. He’s had a lot of his work covered in rock and roll and even had a couple of alternative hits of people covering some of his older stuff. My dad likes to shake things up. He doesn’t like to just go with the norm. I think he always appreciated the breadth of our leanings.
KMJ: You have a new little one with your daughter Daisy. Is she sharing the Cook love of music at a young age?
KC: Yes, she really is. She loves to sing. And she’s just at the age–she’ll be three in September–where’s she constantly making up songs. And it will be whatever happened five minutes ago.
[Singing:] I’m going to the store…
I’m going Krogering with my mother…
She sounds so operatic and she’s so into it. And she’s already figured out that if she sings in the shower, the reverb sounds that much better. It’s so interesting. We’ll have to start recording her. She got a little pink drum set when she was born so she’s always bashing around on that. I was such a late-bloomer because I was shy and surrounded by all these great musicians and songwriters, I kind of wish someone would have just thrown me into the rehearsal space when I was young and just told me to get over it. I’m hoping that if she shows interest, we’ll take her down to our music space and she’ll never be shy about getting behind a microphone. I’d love for her to be a drummer. My dream was to be Sheila E. I would give anything if Daisy would really get into drumming. We’ll see.
KMJ: Maybe Sheila E’s the country music artist you can pitch your songs to.
KC: You’re right. She won Gone Country. Who knows? That would be so cool–such a thrill. I’d love to meet her. She’s a real inspiration to me.
KMJ: I have some questions on some of your favorites over the years. What’s your favorite video ever played there at CMT?
KC: There’s just so many to choose from, it’s hard to say. I really appreciated–and this is going back a few years–all the videos that Dwight Yoakum made. He would direct them himself. It didn’t surprise me at all that he got into acting. He brought Hollywood to country music videos. As much as I like some of the latest videos we shoot right here in town, I can look right at them and recognize all the extras, all the scenery, and know that many of them are shot by the same people. I really like it when someone goes out there and shoots something just completely different. When Tim McGraw went to England to shoot “My Kind Of Rain” it was really cool. I agree with Dolly Parton that we need to take country music places. It’s not about leaving country music behind, it’s taking it out to new heights and to new places. I always lean towards those videos that look a little different.
KMJ: I’ve always pictured Dwight Yoakum standing on top of the train in his “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere” video–it was always just so cinematic.
KC: Yes, you’re right. He’s just so cool. He’s never afraid to take country music or his videos to new places. He’s just so cool.
KMJ: What about artists? What artists excite you?
KC: Dolly is probably my favorite. She’s always going to be tops for me. I like what Jason Aldean has been doing. Little Big Town is one of the best bands we’ve had come out in a really long time. Those would be some of my favorites. I’m a really big Vince Gill fan. Allison Krauss. I could go on and on. But Dolly Is always going to be tops for me.
KMJ: Favorite interview? I’d guess it might be Dolly…
KC: Absolutely. We’ve been lucky enough to interview Dolly a few times a year. I have all these pictures of me and Dolly all over my bulletin board. Every time I see her I have to take a picture with her and put it up on my wall. She is the absolute coolest. Every time I’m around her, I just learn more about how to behave in the industry. She’s just such a shining example of how to treat people, how to be funny, being witty and quick in her interviews and how to be confident. She’s one of a kind. I can’t say enough good things about her. The first time I interviewed her, someone said not to be nervous and that she’ll totally put you at ease. It couldn’t have been more true. I was so nervous and I met her about an hour before we went onto set. I popped my head into her dressing room and said, “hi.” I was on the verge of tears and she just put me at ease immediately. She knows how to do that. She knows she’s an icon but she also knows how to make you feel so relaxed around her. Have you interviewed her?
KMJ: No, but she’s tops on my list. For her to build her empire off of literally dirt floor poor beginnings is absolutely amazing to me.
KC: I think one of the things I love about her the most is that she was truly dirt poor. And she’s always worked that into her shtick, if you will. She’s always written songs about it, she’s always talked about and she’s always done it such an open way, it’s taken all the shame right out of it. It’s really helped so many people. When you go to Pigeon Forge and that area in and around Dollywood and see how many people are employed by and because of her, it’s amazing. Talk about using your status for good–it’s inspiring.
KMJ: She’s bigger than the mayor and governor there in that area of Tennessee.
KC: You’re right. Those people rightfully worship her. And it’s not like she just threw a bunch of money into that part of town as an investment and then walked off. She goes there regularly and gets in a little car and drives around Dollywood. People can just reach right out there and touch her. She is there a lot. She has a little apartment right there in the middle of Dollywood where you can do interviews with her. She’s just really a part of it. There’s just a whole parking lot there just for her family. Practically everyone in her family has or does work for her. She just takes care of people. She’s beautiful. She’s just awesome. She’s just Dolly. If I’m ever going to get someone’s name or face tattooed somewhere on my body, it’ll be Dolly.
KMJ: Is there any artist who has passed on that if you had the chance again, that you would love to do a posthumous interview with?
KC: Johnny Cash. I just really would have loved the chance to meet Johnny Cash. Growing up in Nashville, I knew so many people that knew him really well. Some of my father’s best friends hung out with Johnny all the time. Dad even hung out with him. But I never got the chance to meet him. It’s kind of an odd way of thinking about it, but I’ve always wondered what it was like for him to go from on top to being considered passé to all of a sudden being worshiped again by this whole new crop of young people. What an interesting life musically. He’s someone who’s seen the highs and the lows and there’s so many things I’d like to talk to him about. I would have liked so very much to have interviewed him. He was getting pretty ill by the time I started at CMT.
KMJ: You’re doing a lot more social networking with your CMT viewers connecting more on a one on one basis. How is that going?
KC: It’s really fun. I really didn’t understand Facebook and Twitter when they first came out. I always thought, people wouldn’t care that I’d put on there that I’m getting ready to interview Taylor Swift. What people really want is to find out the things about you like you were their buddy. They want to know that I went to Home Depot and took my daughter to McDonald’s. I’ve found that I’m following artists this way. I want to find out how they do stuff when they’re not in the middle of an interview or on stage. That’s interesting. I get it now. I’m spending a lot of time on there just being silly, talking about breakfast. It’s amazing. I haven’t been on Twitter very long, but have a lot of followers so I guess people like what I’m talking about. And I do comment on stuff going on with artists and things about the show. It’s just talking about what’s going on with your life. It’s me. On Facebook, I’m connecting with lots of people that I thought were dead and gone. Connecting with people from high school that didn’t even know I was working at CMT. I’m really enjoying but getting mildly obsessed. On Twitter, I’m @TheKatieCook, which sounds a little pompous but apparently there were some other Katie Cooks out there.
KMJ: What is country music to Katie Cook?
KC: Storytelling. It’s good honest storytelling. The best country music songs have always been based on something very real to the writer. The musicianship can be absolutely incredible but for me it always comes down to the storytelling. I’ve loved pop songs and can sing you every word, but can’t tell you what the hell they’re talking about. A good country song that’s start to finish good storytelling will mean a lot to a lot of people.
KMJ: You interview a lot of stars, but there’s a rumor going around that you’re into things that fly around stars. Are you a closet UFO believer?
KC: I’m so into that. Actually if there was someone who I could talk to after coming back from the dead it would be Elvis. His father always says that there was a UFO flying around their house the night he was born. He thinks there was a blue light shining down on their house. Elvis was way into this stuff. Supposedly, Michael Jackson was into this stuff too. I think there’s something out there. I’m pretty convinced. And I can’t believe that it’s not something everyone on our planet isn’t obsessed with. I can’t think of anything more interesting than if there’s life out there beyond our planet. And yet, people are always thinking it’s a little bit kooky that I’m into that. Other people don’t think about this 24/7? Could anything be more interesting? It really puts everything else into perspective, you know?
- bob: Thanks Barry. Just reserved the Adam Gussow book. Sounds interesting.
- Barry Mazor: It may be over-stated, in arriving at practically a single explanation of everything, but Adam Gussow's book on lynching and …
- Leeann: Wow! Heavy topic and horrifying indeed! "Beer for My Horses" was all fun and games until that reference, I'll have …
- Barry Mazor: Everything else aside, the way that reporter fills us in, with must-have, pointless generational snark included, about who this "Little …
- luckyoldsun: "The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia" seems to be about a lynching--even if there's something about a judge …
- Arlene: Sorry. I meant to give the link for "Supper Time." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZ58Kfe41kI
- Arlene: Another song sung by Ethel Waters: Irving Berlin's "Supper Time"
- bob: Powerful songs. I read the book "A Lynching in the Heartland" by James H. Madison about a dozen years ago. …
- Ron: Sky Above, Mud Below by Tom Russell is another.
- Jack Williams: Another Othis Taylor song from White African is "My Soul's in Louisiana."