Tennessee Rose

The return of singer Laura Cantrell

by Paul Hond Published Fall 2012
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As Spencer tries out some ideas, Cantrell goes through the tidy kitchen (Nevers lives here with his wife and kids) to the back room for a break. It’s a chamber of retro dreams: vintage guitars on the wall, a Lloyd’s AM/FM radio, gargoyle statuettes, photos of Air Force planes in formation (Nevers’s father was a fighter pilot in Vietnam), a drum kit, a Wurlitzer Funmaker organ with lollipop-colored touch tones, an old Vox amp. One guitar is labeled with the words This Machine Kills Commies, an elbow to Woody Guthrie. Pretty good.

Beech House Recording / Photograph by Kristina KrugThe new album is an attempt to reconnect with the audience, to remind people who I am,” Cantrell says. The record, which the singer plans to release in early 2013, will contain more Cantrell originals than any previous album. But there’s another hook. “This is the first time,” she says, “that I’ve really made music in Nashville.”

Normally, people go to Nashville to become country stars, or, like Kitty Wells, they are born there and stay put. Cantrell turned that around. A native Nashvillian, she left to attend Columbia in 1985 and has lived in New York since. The anonymity that the big city afforded an alternative country artist seemed preferable to the Nashville glitz and glare. You won’t see Cantrell on a Music City billboard, yet almost any of her songs sound as though they should be hits, or are hits in a parallel universe made of record players and pop intelligence, which is maybe what her friend Michael Cerveris, the Tony Award–winning actor and musician, means when he says, “The first time you hear her, you think, ‘If I haven’t heard these melodies before, I should have,’” or what Elvis Costello meant when he said, “If Kitty Wells made Rubber Soul, it would sound like Laura Cantrell.”

Beech House Recording / Photograph by Kristina KrugYou could say it was Wells who got Cantrell looking homeward. In 2008 and 2009, the Country Music Hall of Fame staged a Kitty Wells exhibit — the first single-artist exhibit of a female member of the Hall — and asked Cantrell to perform as part of the closing ceremonies. Cantrell had worked at the Hall as a tour guide the summer before college, an experience that stoked her interest in the history of the distinctive musical traditions that fall under the banner. For the Wells gig, Cantrell pulled together local players, “young musicians who have chosen to learn the craft of country music,” and after the show, she thought, “I’ve got this band in Nashville, they know all these Kitty Wells tunes, maybe we should go over to Beech House and document it.”

As a Tennessee girl who decamped for New York long ago, she says, making that Kitty Wells record in Nashville was invigorating. “There was a certain pride between the musicians in the room, a reverence for the old style of country music, and shared references that wouldn’t have been as palpable in New York or anywhere else. The record gave me an opportunity to directly express my passion for the history of country music, and specifically for Kitty and her work and what she means as an artist.”

“I was delighted how it felt recording here. Comfortable.”

Nevers, a Ramones buff, had recorded both alt-country and classic country, and possessed a broader vocabulary than most Nashville engineers. “I was delighted how it felt recording here,” Cantrell says. “Comfortable.”

Cantrell returned to Beech House this past April to record rhythm tracks for eight original songs, and now, in July, she’s filling out space, playing with sounds, colors, instrumentation, opening the palette to nontraditional hues.

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