FEATURE

Tennessee Rose

The return of singer Laura Cantrell

by Paul Hond Published Fall 2012
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This Old House

(Thursday, July 12, 2012, 1:00 p.m.)
Photograph by Rayon RichardsThe rain falls hard in Music City. It washes the bricks and Gothic windows of the Ryman Auditorium, grand old home of the Opry, sets the honky-tonk neon of Lower Broad glistening as bar bands serve up Merle and Dolly, scrubs the white limestone porticos of the capitol on the hill, swells the snaking Cumberland River, lashes the 808-foot-tall, diamond-shaped mast of WSM AM 650 (“The Legend”), and drips from the eaves of a small brick house in South Nashville, behind whose front window Laura Cantrell ’89CC, in jeans, a white blouse, and glasses, stands on the carpet, at a crossroads.

“I think the solo’s so long we should figure out how to split it up,” says engineer Mark Nevers, seated at his Sphere Eclipse mixing console.

Cantrell agrees. “It might be worth listening to that fiddle part,” she says to the other man in the room, Mark Spencer, a burly, Brooklyn-based guitarist in a flannel shirt and scuffed leather boots. “Why don’t you keep refining the dreamy stuff and then we can talk about the solo separately?”

The song is “Starry Skies,” another Cantrell tune you can’t get out of your head. The singer is here at Beech House Recording making her fifth album in twelve years (a pace she considers slow, but which agrees with the curated character of her work), and her first proper Laura Cantrell album since Humming by the Flowered Vine in 2005.

“The drum approach was more Phil Spector-ish,” Cantrell tells Spencer. “We decided that even though the vibe of the original rhythm track was kind of light, it was solid enough that you could build on top of it.”

“The new album is an attempt to reconnect with the audience, to remind people who I am.” 

This project is a defining one for Cantrell. A favorite of critics, freeform-radio heads, and country- music epicures, Cantrell (pronounced Can-trull) is breaking a songwriting silence that can be traced to 2006, when she gave birth to a daughter and redirected her energies. The change put the singer in a meditative mood that resulted in Trains and Boats and Planes (2008), a departure and- transition-themed EP of covers that includes the Bacharach–David title number and a reworking of New Order’s “Love Vigilantes,” which Cantrell distills to something like a Civil War dirge. Last year, she released a tribute to the singer Kitty Wells, the Queen of Country Music. Kitty Wells Dresses contains selections from Wells’s vast catalog, including 1952’s “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” the first chart-topping country song by a solo woman artist.

“You could bust out of the melody if you feel like you’ve got somewhere to go,” Cantrell tells Spencer. “I feel there’s a lot of shimmery kind of following-the-melody in all the other instrumentation.”

“It really does need to rise up over the rest of it,” Nevers says.

Cantrell says, “I don’t follow guitar real well, so —”

“Me neither,” says Spencer, and everyone laughs.

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