Laura Cantrell’s slow rise to the top of the country underground is a story of contradictions, and quickly becoming the stuff of legends. Born and raised in the Mecca of country music — Nashville — she took a reverse pilgrimage and moved to New York City to attend college. Oddly enough, it was there that Cantrell found an outlet to explore country music as host of “Tennessee Border”, a music program on college radio station WKCR. Taking the normal route of aspiring singer/songwriters, she performed at local coffeehouses, and when she realized that playing for latte-sipping college students doesn’t pay so well, she took the not-so-normal route of getting a position as VP of a Wall Street bank. Most dreamy-eyed guitar strummers would have stopped here, content to live a posh existence and play the occasional show for an adoring local following. Not Cantrell. She pushed onward, releasing her debut album, Not the Trembling Kind, in 2000.
From here, the story gets really interesting, if not unbelievable. Hearing the album, iconic BBC DJ John Peel declared the album was his “favourite record of the last 10 years and possibly [his] life”. After recording five Peel Sessions, Cantrell released her follow up, 2002’s When the Roses Bloom Again, and after hearing the album, Elvis Costello asked Cantrell to open 17 shows on his U.S. tour. This led to appearances at some of the most holy venues (including the Grand Ole Opry), television performances, and tours with revered artists like Joan Baez and Ralph Stanley. As if that’s not enough, Cantrell has remained the host of “Radio Thrift Shop”, an underground musical show with a fanatically-devoted audience, on freeform radio station WFMU. How’s that for following your dreams?
This brings us to the present, where Cantrell’s career continues to breed fortunate contradictions, most notably her signing with Matador — a label more known for rock acts like Guided by Voices, Belle and Sebastian, Mogwai, and Cat Power than country chanteuses. Still, the match is perfect, seeing that Matador is known for signing artists devoted to their art rather than the charts. Humming by the Flowered Vine, Cantrell’s latest release, is another brilliant album that showcases the singer’s songwriting gifts and scholarly knowledge of old-school country. With this album, she seals her reputation as country’s unofficial archive keeper, a woman devoted to preserving the roots of roots music.
Indeed, Cantrell has earned as much praise for her gift of unknown country gems and recording them as for her amazing voice. Flowered Vine features five original songs and five songs that were written by other artists. If there’s a common theme to be found among these songs, it’s longing — whether for love or home. “14th Street” for example, sees the narrator wanting to approach a person on the street but eventually settling for daydreaming: “I see you walking up 14th Street / And you don’t know / I’m following behind you / Counting my steps as I go / Maybe 10 steps or 12 / Divide us in two…” While the song is essentially country, it possesses a ’60s pop feel, with angelic backup vocals that float above a jaunty piano. Several of the songs, such as “Khaki and Corduroy”, and “Letters”, deal with leaving home, only to yearn for its comforts. The former, written by Cantrell about her move to New York, is a collection of images that reminds the narrator of a distant home: “Sometimes I see their faces / In the most unlikely places.” With claviola, piano, and brushed drums, it’s more old-school jazz than old-school country, but it’s a stunning song nonetheless. “Letters” is an old Lucinda Williams song, and Cantrell’s band captures the thick, humid groove of vintage Lucinda. The lyrics are also classic Williams, referencing numerous cities and depicting unrequited desire.
Other songs are more traditional in approach. “California Rose” is Cantrell’s homage to Rose Maddox of the Maddox Brothers and Rose, a Depression-era act. Featuring fast fingerpicking and a deep, bouncing bass line, the song depicts the struggles of Maddox to find success outside of her family, but only finding the roadblocks of gender roles. Cantrell gives a classic country performance, full of charm and twang. “Poor Ellen Smith” is a song discovered by Ethel Park Richardson and published in her 1927 book American Mountain Songs. While recording the album, Cantrell discovered that Richardson was her great, great aunt and decided to record the song, which is a traditional murder ballad. Cantrell’s band gives it the authentic treatment, complete with mandolin and fiddle.
With Humming by the Flowered Vine, Cantrell has proven she’s the rightful heiress to Lucinda Williams. Like Williams, Cantrell writes beautifully stark songs that find the poetry in simple images, songs that reveal the profound revelations in everyday life. Moreover, she not only performs covers, but finds songs that reflect the heritage of traditional American music. If you want a brief, impassioned synopsis of country’s history, this is it. Just when alt-country began limping on clichéd legs, we have an album that shows what roots music is really about — knowledge, passion, and talent.