Tennessee Rose

The return of singer Laura Cantrell

by Paul Hond Published Fall 2012
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“Each recording project presents a fresh question to answer for yourself about what you’re doing and why,” she says. “For this record, where I’m working for the first time with mostly my own songs and point of view, the pressure I’ve felt is to find what suits each song and do it justice. It’s challenging and exciting, because I have to really define the sound. When you use elements that people have associations with — banjo, pedal steel — it’s easy to sound like you’re playing a type of music rather than a song. I’m trying to think beyond the concept of what country music is, and to focus on what the songs want to sound like. People should hear the songs, not the setting. Everything comes from what the songs need in order to be the best versions of themselves.”

It is Thursday. On Monday, Cantrell will go back to New York and celebrate her forty-fifth birthday. By the end of the week, she will be back in Nashville for a funeral.

Barn Raising

(Wednesday, July 11, 2012, 8:36 p.m.)
“Friends, as an artist, our next guest has helped shape and grow a passionate community of lovers of true country music in New York City over the past decade-plus.” Jim Lauderdale, the Nashville musician and songwriter, is cohosting Music City Roots, a weekly radio show broadcast live from the Loveless Barn out Highway 100, comin’ atcha over WRLT FM. “She was raised here in Nashville, and her love for the real thing was kindled here.”

In a back row inside an enormous converted barn painted white as a church, on a warm evening as sunny as tomorrow’s Beech House day will be wet, you sit with a cup of Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine and a plate of beans amid hundreds of folks of all ages who have packed the place to catch some serious pickin’ and grinnin’, and a little heartache, too.

“Her series of albums starting in 2000 have been hailed as among the most original and alluring works of modern country music,” Lauderdale says. “We’re delighted to welcome to the ‘Roots’ — Laura Cantrell!”

Cantrell, the fourth of five acts, stands before a silver microphone, dressed in a simple black blouse and dark jeans. She has delicate cheekbones, ruby-painted lips, dangling earrings, and cradles a honey-brown guitar. Mark Spencer stands beside her in his flannel and six-string. The hometown crowd settles in.

“Thank you, Jim,” says the lady. “Wow, it’s so cool to be here tonight.”

She’s a long way from New York City, and as she turns to cue Spencer, you and Ole Smoky reflect that the first home for Cantrell’s sound was farther away than that.

It was Shoeshine Records, an independent Scottish label, that released Not the Tremblin’ Kind in the UK in March 2000. As was standard in Britain, Shoeshine mailed Tremblin’ to the BBC Radio disc jockey and producer John Peel, whom rock titan Jack White called “the most important DJ of all time.” Peel had been spinning vinyl and waxing fervent over the British airwaves since 1967. He had consumed thousands of records, and his Peel Sessions, in which he invited his favorite artists to record a live set of songs in the BBC studios or at his farmhouse in East Anglia (among the hundreds: Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, the Smiths, Bob Marley), are, as the BBC calls them, “the stuff of legend.”

Well, Cantrell entered Peel’s ear like a bee nuzzling a flower, inducing the fabled DJ to declare Not the Tremblin’ Kind “my favorite record of the past ten years and possibly my life.” He invited the singer to do five Peel Sessions.

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