At first glance, Kristy Lee Cook seems like the quintessential girl next door. With her sunny smile, long blonde hair, passion for horses and deep-rooted love of country music, she could be your local rodeo queen or an aspiring recording artist paying dues at the local watering hole. However, spend any amount of time around the young singer, and it’s obvious there’s so much more than meets the eye.
“I definitely am kind of a girl next door, but I’m also a risk taker,” says the lithesome blonde. “If I think it might work and I have a strong feeling about it, I’ll do it. It depends on the moment or the mood or what the situation is, but I like to take risks.”
The Oregon native took a major risk when she sold her favorite horse to raise the money to travel to Philadelphia and audition for American Idol. Once there, in a sea of pop star hopefuls, she chose to sing “Amazing Grace.” Cook’s gorgeous rendition of the classic hymn earned her a ticket to Hollywood, where she finished seventh on last season’s FOX-TV competition.
As a young artist who has never hesitated to pursue her dreams with fierce determination, the title of her 19 Recordings/Arista Nashville debut, Why Wait, seems extremely apropos. Produced by GRAMMY-winning songwriter Brett James, the 10-song collection showcases Cook’s engaging vocals, and the songs perfectly suit her vibrant personality. “This album is basically everything I wanted,” gushes Cook. “Honestly, all the songs on there fit certain times in my life, so I love every single song on the album. I’m very, very excited to see what people think of it.”
Cook is savoring every experience these days because she worked long and hard to get to this moment. Growing up in Selma, Oregon, music and horses were her two passions, and she became both an accomplished equestrian and sought-after young singer. “When I was 13 years old, I heard LeAnn Rimes sing ‘Blue’ on the radio, and I started singing that all the time,” she recalls. “Then I started performing all over my area. That’s how I got started, getting little gigs here and there, which led to opening for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Creedence Clearwater, and others. It was really fun. It was something that not all 13-year-olds get to do, and I was very happy.”
As the new millennium approached, Cook found herself drawing fans from far outside the local arena. She signed a management deal that led to an introduction to Britney Spears. The pop star signed Cook to her production company and promised to make an appearance in her first video. In 2001, Cook inked a record deal with Arista Nashville, but things just didn’t come together for the teenage hopeful at that time. Disappointed but undaunted, she didn’t return to Oregon, instead opting to hone her skills on the competitive Lone Star circuit. She moved to Texas and began performing at Cowboys in Arlington, the same legendary honky-tonk that labelmate Chris Young used as a training ground. In fact, the two often co-headlined shows there. She was also tapped to perform at Cowboys locations in San Antonio and Dallas.
“I performed four nights a week,” recalls Cook, who also spent time training and selling horses. “It was all so much fun and a great learning experience. I learned how to perform and interpret different songs every week. The whole experience was really awesome, and it made me the performer that I am now.”
During her tenure at Cowboys, she recorded a live album, Devoted, an indie project that became a fan favorite. Though she could have continued to make a good living in Texas, Cook returned to Oregon in 2007 and began planning her next move. Thus she decided to sell her barrel race horse, Montana, to raise the money to go for the American Idol Philadelphia audition. “It took me overnight to decide whether I wanted to sell him or not,” she recalls. It was a bittersweet decision, but ultimately a happy choice, she says “because now I’m living my dream. I’m getting to do what I’ve always wanted.”
She’s also happy to be back on Arista Nashville and believes the timing couldn’t have worked out better. “It gave me time to grow up and actually come into this with some fans already,” she says. “So it made it a lot nicer.” While recording her album, Cook also had the chance to earn a few more fans while on the 53-date American Idols Live! Tour 2008, which concluded just a few days prior to her album’s release.
Looking back, she says that her time on American Idol taught her some valuable lessons. “The main thing you have to do is be yourself and be confident in what you’re doing, because it shows if you’re not,” she says. “I just took that whole experience, and I’m going to use it in the future. Anytime I’m in a bind, I’ll pull out the toughness and perseverance. It was a hard experience, but definitely worth it.”
Idol also helped Cook crystallize her vision for the type of music she wanted to create and the kind of songs that would populate her debut album. “I’m a very strong young woman,” Cook states matter-of-factly. “I’ll tell it like it is, and I’m a very independent kind of girl, so a lot of songs reflect that.”
The songs on Why Wait cover a broad range of emotional territory, from the feisty first single, “15 Minutes of Shame,” which finds a girl blowing the whistle on the guy who did her wrong to the poignant “Homesick,” which anyone pursuing a dream far from home will relate to immediately. Cook has a sweetly textured voice that is equally comfortable on such frisky, up-tempo fare as “I Think Too Much” and tender, heartfelt ballads like the unforgettable “Like My Mother Does.”
Cook also includes “God Bless the USA,” the patriotic anthem that proved to be one of her most memorable American Idol performances. “I am very, very privileged to be doing ‘God Bless the USA,’” says Cook. “I know it hasn’t been re-cut in a long, long time, and when I was on the show, [the song’s writer and original recording artist] Lee Greenwood had said that he really enjoyed me singing that song, so that meant a lot to me, and my dad was a veteran so that song is just very special.”
There are songs that reveal her strong, confident side, such as “Not Tonight.” Co-written by American Idol alum Carrie Underwood, it’s a song about planning to exit a relationship with a guy who definitely isn’t Mr. Right, while “Plant a Seed” offers a lyric that speaks to Cook’s life and bedrock values. “It’s a very uplifting song, and it actually fits me very well because in the second verse it says, ‘You don’t mind living on a budget. You wouldn’t teach school if you didn’t love it, you’re there before seven and stay on after five,’” relates Cook. “It’s me because I’ve always had to live on a budget. My family struggled, and I never cared that we didn’t have a lot. I was happy with what I had, and I always worked hard at what I was doing. I still am to this day.”
Kristy Lee Cook is the girl next door and a little bit of a tomboy, too, with a competitive spirit and determined attitude that make her a winner. “I’m the kind of person who doesn’t give up, and I don’t like to quit. I’m kind of stubborn that way,” she admits candidly. “I’m very competitive, and I want to win. I knew I had it in me to make it, and I was just waiting for my chance. It’s a cowgirl thing—you can’t give up, and you have to be tough. That’s always been my thing.”