FEATURE

Tennessee Rose

The return of singer Laura Cantrell

by Paul Hond Published Fall 2012
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Photograph by Rayon Richards

On the way to Nashville to see her, you remember the first time.

It was a Sunday afternoon in November 2000. You were in Mondo Kim’s on St. Mark’s, that multilevel CD and video store with the torn movie posters and underground-punk vibration, and your pal, who grew up on Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams in a chicken town below the Mason-Dixon, was thumbing through the slender country-music section, when somewhere between Bobby Bare and Johnny Cash she got stopped cold.

She pulled out the CD and stared. The cover showed a slim, fair-haired woman, early thirties, standing straight, hands on hips, leveling her gaze at the camera through a window. The glass had a long, slanted crack. Title: Not the Tremblin’ Kind. Artist: Laura Cantrell.

Your pal, intrigued by the image, bought the disc. A mistake, you thought. You believed yourself broad-minded, no snob, no square, just a subscriber to Duke Ellington’s dictum, “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.” And having glanced once or twice at Country Music Television, with its cowboy hats and satin sheets, and surfed the glossy, tepid waves of commercial country radio, you had your doubts.

Back at your apartment, you slid the disc into the machine. What happened? Guitars bloomed, your ears unlocked, and a strange nectar poured in — a voice so sweet and clear, so vulnerable, so pretty and plain, so finely threaded with golden hairs of whiskey and dime-store fabric and acoustic strings, that you were caught. This was the girl next door, no, the woman in the room, singing in your ear about strong hearts and busted-up hearts and beds of sorrow and churches off the interstate. And the songs, so tuneful and bright, so smartly crafted, with more hooks than a dress rack, and the band, so tight, so swingin’, the pedal steel and trembling mandolins, the ringing Byrds guitars. Each song, it seemed, told a piece of your story.

Who was she? A Southerner, that was evident, but from where, exactly, and in what context? The music was both homespun and urbane — the ambiguity threw you. Alabama? Georgia? Kentucky? You picked up the CD case for clues, and read that it was recorded in — Brooklyn? Wires sputtered. And the backing musicians — the names evoked not the Smoky Mountains so much as Klezmer Night at the Knitting Factory. You weren’t sure why you should be shocked — you perceived, hazily, that it all made perfect sense — but you felt embarrassed, blindsided. Cantrell wasn’t from Butcher Holler, apparently. Did it matter? Duke wouldn’t think so.

“This is good,” you said. “It’s got this — quality.” There were many factors that went into this quality, and you were about to try to name them, but your pal spoke first.

“It sounds like home,” she said.

Remember how you looked at her, startled, as if she’d just brought down the bird of truth with the most casual shot? Yet it would take you years to understand what she really meant.

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