For American Idol season seven alum Kristy Lee Cook, the road to a hit song may well have started in the jungles of Vietnam decades before she was born.
Cook’s new single, “Airborne Ranger Infantry,” the first release with her new label, Broken Bow Records, was inspired by her father, Larry, who served during the extraction period after the Vietnam War. To cope with the realities of war, the elder Cook penned several poems about his experiences.
“My parents met in the army, and my dad is a poetic guy, and his way of expressing himself is through poems,” the 28-year old Oregon native tells The Hollywood Reporter's Idol Worship. “He’s also like Rambo. I wouldn’t have any idea of that softer side of him if it hadn’t been for those poems.”
As a tribute to her father, Cook met with co-writers Luke Sheets and Michael Logen in an attempt to flesh out her father’s words with a musical arrangement. The result is a powerful statement about the courageous men serving in the military and the sacrifices they make. Cook’s co-writers were so moved by the finished product, they suggested he get a writing credit.
“He never would have asked for anything, so I said that would be awesome,” she said. “I really wanted to tell this story. I wasn’t trying to write a single, I was trying to write a song for my dad.”
Cook revealed that a different song was nearly debuted this May, but a softball incident which resulted in a broken foot, torn ligaments and a summer on crutches, derailed that plan. “If that didn’t happen, I would have released something else, so it worked out perfectly,” she says.
"Airborne Ranger Infantry" is already causing a bit of a commotion at country radio, racking up 21 adds in its first week of release. Cook's been down this path before. She had not one, but two deals with Nashville Arista, once when she was 17 and back in 2008 after her season on Idol. That record, Why Wait?, included her single, “15 Minutes of Shame,” which peaked at number 28 on country radio, and “Like My Mother Does,” which was later recorded by season 10 runner-up Lauren Alaina.
Her current deal with Broken Bow Records happened after Cook became more involved in the songwriting process, she explained, and this time, Cook is getting some traction -- the label has already shot a video, which Cook said will be out at the end of the year. The initial strong reaction at radio bodes well for the Cook’s forthcoming as-yet-untitled CD, which is produced by label mate Jason Aldean, who also lends vocals to the track “Dirt Cheap."
“He’s awesome, and he knows what he’s doing,” said Cook. “He was very good working with me in the studio, and it’s really neat to work with somebody who is my favorite country artist.”
Yes, Cook is in a very good place these days, professionally and personally. She cheerfully chatted about her boyfriend, a baseball scout, college and Little League coach (“I’m going with him to four games over the weekend on my time off,” she said), her horses, and, of course, girlfriends from her season (she still speaks to Brooke White, Carly Smithson, Ramiele Malubay and Syesha Mercado).
As a former contestant on American Idol and the host of her own show, Goin Country, Cook also knows a thing or two about television, and had plenty to say about the drama between judges Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey. Read on for the rest of THR's chat with the seventh place finisher.
The Hollywood Reporter: Tell us about the song "Airborne Ranger Infantry" and how it was influenced by your father’s poems.
Kristy Lee Cook: He said they were written about the men he had served with as well as his own experiences. The poems alone weren’t just about my dad, it was about these men that were talking and sharing experiences with each other, and my dad wrote poems about it.
THR: The imagery is very sharp, specifically the line about his best friend dying in a “pool of blood."
Cook: It’s very deep. Those lines were taken directly from the poems themselves. This is a touchy subject. It has to be real or it’s going to be fake -- and people will know it. Soldiers will know it. We didn’t want to write something that wasn’t real, because that is what country is about: things that are real. There were so many different options to be taken with these poems, and when we found one that was so graphic, it was more of a question of will this get played on country radio? We didn’t really know.
THR: It is getting a really strong reaction.
Cook: People were crying when they listened to it. It’s told from a soldier’s perspective. Usually, songs are told from [the singer’s] perspective, and what we would think they would say and what we feel about it. That’s what I love about it. It has a unique view, because nobody knows what it was like over there.
THR: What is your take on a very different kind of war: the American Idol drama between Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey?
Cook: We all know television can be a little overdone. People like drama and that’s what sells. I have never seen Mariah not get along with anybody. I don’t know much about Nicki Minaj, but Mariah is a very sweet person, so I think a lot of it is for show. A lot of people said Paula Abdul was crazy, but Paula was the nicest one there. She was the only one that came up to us and offered support and she was very sweet. A lot of it may be for show, but you never know what is going on behind the scenes. [Editor's note: Carey was a mentor on season seven and Cook was actually eliminated that week, after singing "Forever."]
THR: How was your experience different than what these kids are now going through?
Cook: A lot has changed every year. They seem to be letting them do more of their style of music and not something that they are not. You say you’re country? Ok, sing Mariah! (laughs). It’s a singing competition. You can’t sing against someone that is comfortable in pop and you’re a country artist. You have to compete in your genre. You can’t play baseball and have a full ride in center field and go play first base. I think they are letting them do more of what they should do as an artist rather than what they want them to do as an artist. Then they’ll throw in some curveballs doing different stuff to see if they can learn it and make it their own, but they are letting them be artists now, which is what I like.
THR: How do you feel about Keith Urban joining the panel?
Cook: I am so happy that he is there. He is a very good singer and knows what he’s talking about. He writes music, he plays music, he sings music and is an artist. That was not the same for Simon Cowell. He is not an artist. He doesn’t know anything about being on stage singing in front of thousands of people. It’s a lot different looking at it from a singer’s standpoint.
THR: Speaking of Simon, have you checked out X Factor yet?
Cook: I wouldn’t tune in to see Simon! [Laughs] He wasn’t very fair to me [on American Idol] because he doesn’t like country artists. One of the things that made me very mad with him, is when I was eliminated off the show, I saw him backstage and he came up to me and said, "I had you picked to be in the title this year.” So he basically saw me in the top two. And I said "I never would have guessed that. All I knew was you hated me." Maybe if he would have said something nice, like I think you are a good contender or something, I might have had a chance. He is who he is. I would tune in to see Britney, though.
THR: You go back with Britney Spears -- when you were in your teens, she had a production company, BNL Productions, that you were signed to. Now that she’s mentoring the teen category on X Factor, how do you think she’ll do?
Cook: She was so sweet. I met her a couple of times. ... She has been in the business so long and she knows how it works, so I think she’s going to do well. They will really like working with her. It is very hard to get up there in front of thousands of people and millions of viewers. That’s like David Archuleta -- he forgot his lyrics. She has a good reason to be nervous for them, because if they have a judge that is stern, they are going to be hard on them and she doesn’t want them to mess up.
THR: It seems like things are going really well for you now.
Cook: It’s been a long road. There’s a lot longer of a road to come, but I’ve been working really hard, and I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason.