Laura Cantrell's country roots
Laura Cantrell (photo by Hugh Hales-Tooke)
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, April 22, 2004) – Born and raised in Nashville, Laura Cantrell imbibed country music in the very air she breathed and the water she drank. But that doesn’t mean she liked it. And as a teen-ager in the early-1980s, the era of “Urban Cowboy,” Cantrell had every reason to shy away from her region’s musical heritage.
“It seemed pretty laughable,” said Cantrell, who performs at Club Helsinki next Wednesday, April 28, at 8, in a recent phone interview from her apartment in Queens, N.Y. “It wasn’t something cool for teen-agers to be into.”
It took a move to New York City, where she attended college at Columbia University, to make Cantrell appreciate country music’s deep roots. And when she did, she discovered traditions that transcended whatever flavor of the month or hunk in a hat the Nashville-based country “industry” was pawning off as country.
As a radio host for over a decade and as a performer for much of that time, Cantrell has now planted herself solidly in the country tradition of Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams and George Jones. With several albums to her credit, including “Not the Tremblin’ Kind” and “When the Roses Bloom Again” (both Diesel Only), Cantrell has reached an international audience, garnering four-star reviews from Rolling Stone magazine, touring as an opener for Elvis Costello, and being featured five times as a guest on legendary BBC broadcaster John Peel’s radio program. And if that doesn’t sound country enough, Cantrell can also now boast of having performed on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.
If Cantrell has achieved a modicum of country credibility, it certainly has come via an unusual path. At Columbia, she fell in with a group of music aficionados and record collectors. She began her career as a radio broadcaster at the campus radio station. After graduation, she began lugging crates of records to the legendary community radio station WFMU in Jersey City, where to this day she continues to host her weekly “Radio Thrift Shop” program on Saturday afternoons.
Her timing was impeccable. “I started doing it in 1993, right as Uncle Tupelo and bands like that were getting national attention,” she said. “I didn’t start the program thinking it would feature alternative country. I had thought it would be great to include artists influenced by old country.
“Then Lucinda Williams made a record, and Steve Earle made a record, and there seemed to be this natural flow of music that fit into the category of music with an obvious relationship to the classics, and easy to play it in sequence. That was the trajectory of the show over the years. Gillian Welch would show up, and then Dolly Parton had a comeback.”
It didn’t stop there. In more recent years, the success of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack opened up more ears to the riches of the sort of old-time country and bluegrass music that Cantrell had been featuring in her broadcasts and her stage show for years.
Having a weekly radio gig also helped prepare Cantrell for the leap she took into live performance. “It took a few years to get comfortable on the radio, but having that experience gave me confidence I didn’t have as a performer,” she said. “It made it easier for me to take seriously going from a bar band playing once a month to making a recording. And it kept me listening to music, some of which found its way into my repertoire.”
Cantrell’s work includes old-time music, classics from country’s golden era of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, and contemporary numbers by country-influenced songwriters in New York, including Dave Schramm, Joe Flood and Amy Rigby. She also writes her own songs, and sings in a clear, reedy voice that seems tailor-made for country heartbreak.
“I like words that are pretty simple but also get to the heart of the matter,” said Cantrell, describing what attracts her to a song and what keeps bringing her back to country. “I think songs have to tell some kind of story that I can relate to enough to be the person telling the song. That’s my criteria.”
While Cantrell’s country isn’t the sound of contemporary country hit radio, she sees positive signs amidst the non-traditional pop that pervades the country airwaves.
“There’ve been a lot of traditionalist movements over the years,” she said. “When Emmylou Harris was getting started in the 1970s, a lot of people in Nashville admired her and her affinity for the old music. She could also be hip to the rock community.
“You can point to a lot of things over the last thirty years that have brought it back to the traditional, to the essentials. A group like the Dixie Chicks has brought the focus back on country-music instrumentation, using banjos and having a girl play fiddle in your band. That’s a powerful image for people. And a lot of the folks on bluegrass end of things, like Alison Krauss, inherently have that ability, and they have a huge audience.
“Nobody remembers the country disco records. They were horrible at the time and now they’re gone, just a footnote. The more awful examples of country pop will fall away. People will argue about whether Shania Twain is country, but it’s part of the process. I don’t spend time myself thinking we’re going to set this straight. I’m more trying to figure out what point of view to come from in my own music, what am I trying to say, and how‘re we going to say it.”
For her show at Helsinki, Cantrell will be accompanied by John Graboff on mandolin and guitar, guitarist Mark Spencer, formerly of alt-country pioneers The Blood Oranges, and bassist Jeremy Chatzky. The Pioneer Valley alt-country trio The Lonesome Brothers, featuring Ray Mason and Jim Armenti, will warm up the crowd for Cantrell.
For reservations call 413-528-3394.
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 23, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]
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