As long ago as 1994, country traditionalist Alan Jackson was merrily lampooning the fact that “the whole world’s gone country.”
In Jackson’s best-selling take on the veteran Bob McDill’s song “Gone Country”, a Vegas lounge singer reads “about Nashville and all the records that everybody’s buying”, packs her bags and points her hatchback east proclaiming: “I’m a simple girl myself, I grew up on Long Island”. Meanwhile, a survivor of the fatally wounded Greenwich Village folk scene says, “I don’t believe in money, but a man could make him a killing”, and takes the first Greyhound south. I like to think the hopeful pair eventually meet up in a bad-luck bar on the wrong side of Nashville and drink each other to death in a trailer on Murfreesboro Road. But she’s probably the New New Shania by now, and he’s almost certainly writing songs for Carrie Underwood and Bo “Harold” Bice. Such is life outside a country music song.
Of course, there are reasons beyond avarice for going country, and while Laura Cantrell was born into this often wonderful music, her story still touches upon the fall and subsequent rise of a genre that is as authentic, important and vital as any.
“I grew up in Nashville,” she says, “so I pretty much grew up with country music. My parents listened to a lot of music in the house, and my dad was a big bluegrass fan. But I didn’t like the commercial country music of the day, of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Although it was a good period in some ways for people like George Jones and Dolly Parton, there was just so much I didn’t like at all, and so I came to believe that I didn’t like country music.
“But then in high school, I got a job in the Country Music Hall of Fame. I was working there as a tour guide and I had to get to know some more about the older country music—the classic country of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. And as I did, I came to realize there were all these very cool artists and music further back in country history, and that it was actually a very rich, rewarding subject. And that’s what started me off on my own learning and love of country music.”
Since then, having packed her own bags and journeyed north to New York City, Laura Cantrell has had a lot of fun continuing her education, and sharing her love and knowledge with radio listeners. First on Columbia University’s student radio station WKCR, and subsequently on Jersey City’s WFMU, where she is “The Proprietress” of the weekly show The Radio Thrift Shop.
“It’s been a great excuse to keep collecting records, and keep spreading my own enthusiasm for whatever I’m into at the moment to a live audience. It’s definitely a lot of fun to do that.
“Right now, for example, I’m excited about Caitlin Cary’s record with Thad Cockrell, Begonias. And I’ve been very impressed with a lady called Jesse Sykes from Seattle, who’s made a lovely, lovely record called Oh, My Girl. Of course, it’s not new any more, but I just had her come and perform on my show recently, so that was great.”
Of course, Laura Cantrell also has a new record of her own. Humming By the Flowered Vine, released by Matador Records on June 21, is a clear step up from her two already excellent previous offerings, and perhaps marks a belated coming of age for the singer.
“It’s a heady moment. I’m very excited about it. I put out two indie albums on indie labels that were basically just my husband (Jeremy Tepper of the World Famous Blue Jays) and I working from our kitchen table. We worked really hard and we did well, but we definitely understood that it would be tough to keep it all going and to build on the success we’d had. So we were very interested in finding a partner and a label that would allow us to continue to do our own thing, but would also have the resources and creativity to know how to work it, to allow us to reach a larger audience—if there’s one out there.”
Obviously Cantrell thinks Matador, part of the longstanding UK independent Beggars Group, fits the bill.
The indie force is strong with Laura Cantrell. She first put voice to vinyl with Bricks, a band that featured Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan and Tsunami’s Andrew Webster in the days before either of those better-known bands had formed. Her friendship with John Flansburgh then resulted in her appearance on They Might Be Giants’ 1992 album Apollo 18, and in the release of an EP of her own through TMBG’s Hello CD of the Month Club. It’s also worth noting at this point that in 1996, TMBG covered the Cub song “New York City”. The flame-haired country vocalist and one-time Matador recording artist Neko Case was briefly the drummer in Cub, and the Canadian punk trio’s lead singer Lisa Marr has also since turned to country music with her albums 4AM and American Jitters. So the country-indie force interface clearly runs both ways.
Indeed, I first discovered Laura Cantrell a day or two before Christmas 2003 when I heard her duet with Gordon McIntyre of Ballboy—a wonderful indie band from Edinburgh, Scotland—on his song “I Lost You, But I Found Country Music”. Their performance was part of the legendary British DJ John Peel’s Annual Christmas Show, and McIntyre is a big country fan who blames his love affair with the music on his uncool parents.
This “uncool” Scottish enthusiasm for country music is by no means limited to Gordon McIntyre. It was Francis McDonald, head of Glasgow’s Shoeshine Records and drummer for Teenage Fanclub and roughly half the other bands in Scotland, who finally kickstarted Laura Cantrell’s career. First, he encouraged her to record her debut album Not the Tremblin’ Kind. Then he released her album on Shoeshine’s Americana imprint Spit and Polish. And then he somehow contrived to make Cantrell—alongside the aforementioned Ms. Case—the acceptable face of country music in the UK. John Peel even went so far as to say that Not the Tremblin’ Kind was “my favourite record of the last ten years, and possibly my life.”
“I never really understood John’s affection for my album,” Cantrell confesses. “I just totally appreciated it. But I’m sure that having his support definitely gave me an audience, or crediblity with an audience who wouldn’t normally look at country music as something they would accept. That helped us a lot.
“John was so beloved that his word went a long way with people. They were very open to hearing something good in my music because of his support.”
Flushed with her success in the UK, Cantrell and Tepper then released Not the Tremblin’ Kind in the US on the latter’s Diesel Only label to a market that had been prepped to welcome it by the news and reviews from Britain.
Cantrell’s success was deserved. Not the Tremblin’ Kind was an engaging and enchanting collection of excellent songs well sung in a deeply traditional style that still managed to sound both poppy and contemporary. Cantrell’s voice combined an under-stated, fragile beauty with a simple mountain stream purity, her choice of songs hit all the right spots, and the title track set out a stall that could not be ignored in its achingly vulnerable declaration of inner strength.
Two years later, When the Roses Bloom Again repeated the trick, and consequently Laura Cantrell was able to resign from her position as a Vice-President at Bank of America to concentrate on her music. With the result that Humming By the Flowered Vine is a rounder, more complete record than either of its predecessors.
“I’m very proud of my first two albums. We made them when I was working a full time day job, and we were only really able to work on things at the weekend. It took forever to finish things that way, and there were certain sound qualities, certain textures that we just couldn’t achieve. And I wanted to work on that, I wanted to try to include those things on this record.
“I guess I had a natural urge to want to stretch into new territory. And the trick for me was do that and still feeling comfortable with what I’m able to do vocally. And I think we did that pretty well.
“I definitely felt there were a lot of things that came together for this record. We had more keyboards, and JD Foster, our producer, understood where I wanted to grow in terms of the band and all those additional sounds.
“Also, I feel my own singing has grown stronger. I’ve been working on that even more conscientiously since I left my job. Having that time, I think, definitely to focus on music completely is very evident in the finished product.
“I never thought of music as a hobby, but living in New York, you have to pay the rent. And doing community radio I saw that everybody around me funded their artistic efforts with whatever job they could get, so I went out and got one too. I never really expected to be there very long, I always assumed I’d just do it until I could get some sort of paying gig in this field.
“As I got more and more musical opportunities following my albums, I realized those opportunities are not easy to come by, and that it would be foolish of me to disregard them or not take them seriously. Everything from Peel’s support to touring with Elvis Costello. You can’t buy those things, you can’t plan to achieve them, so when they happened I just decided I had to do them. So off I went.”
As with her previous works, Humming By the Flowered Vine showcases both Laura Cantrell’s own songwriting and her uncanny knack for picking material that sounds like it was written specially for her. Typically, Cantrell only writes about 40% of her material.
“Yes, I’m at 40% on this record. Oh, but I have an arrangement credit on a fifth song, so maybe I’m at 45%.
“Actually in some ways, it’s a John Peel process. I’ve had a radio show for a long time, and I always try to be supportive of local artists and make sure they’re represented in my radio show. So when I was in a band and I didn’t have a lot of my own material, I knew there was a lot of really great songs out there by local writers that would still serve the function of original music to listeners since they’d still sound fresh. It wouldn’t be like covering a Johnny Cash song or an old Kitty Wells song, to cover, say, Amy Allison (daughter of Mose and fellow TMBG collaborator) or Dave Schramm.
“And it was really great material. So I thought it would make sense to draw on that body of song from local writers.”
There are several clear standouts on Humming By the Flowered Vine. Cantrell’s own ruefully reflective “Khaki and Corduroy” and gently epic “Old Downtown” are among them, as is Dave Schramm’s “And Still”, and a previously unreleased Lucinda Williams song, “Letters”, that dates back to Williams’ late ‘70s New York period. But the Appallachian murder ballad “Poor Ellen Smith” is perhaps the most interesting.
“My mother’s family is from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and we were doing some genealogical research last year when we discovered that the famous ‘song catcher’ Ethel Park Richardson was my great-great-grandfather’s sister.”
It was a discovery that reflected unexpected light on Laura Cantrell’s own life. Ethel Park Richardson collected songs in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee and published the book American Mountain Songs in 1927. In the 1930s, she moved to New York where she produced Heart-Throbs of the Hills, an NBC radio drama series intended to teach New Yorkers the wonders of folk culture. The parallels are so uncanny they could easily form the basis for a country song.
If “Poor Ellen Smith” is the most interesting song on Cantrell’s album, it’s a close run thing, because the first and absolutely the best song on Humming By the Flowered Vine is “14th Street”. A delicate, beautiful piece that captures a moment of awkward infatuation, temptation and self-knowledge just so, “14th Street” was written by another local talent, Emily Spray, about her own apparently fleeting relationship with no less a soul than Richard Hell many marquee moons ago.
Spray is now married to singer/songwriter Matt Keating. Hopefully, she’s so pleased with Cantrell’s quite lovely rendition of her song that she can smile broadly through her blushes.
“I told Emily I wouldn’t bandy that about,” says Cantrell. “The Richard Hell thing. But since it’s on the Internet somewhere, I can’t avoid it. Yes, she had some little encounter with him and, yes, this song was inspired by that. I’ve always secretly liked the fact that at the heart of this nice sweet twangy little song is such a great punk figure.”
I don’t know if Alan Jackson approves, and I really don’t care too much, but when people like Gordon McIntyre, Francis McDonald, and John Peel go country, I think it speaks volumes for the strength, quality, and tradition of this often most marvellous musical form.
“It may be,” Laura Cantrell acknowledges, “that there’s still a negative stereotype about country music, that it’s lost its substance and its roots. If I can be part of the antidote to that stereotype, then I’ll happily take the job on.”
With performers such as Case, Cary, Cockrell, and Laura Cantrell on the job, the antidote to false country is no longer in short supply. And that’s just the C’s.