FEATURE

Tennessee Rose

The return of singer Laura Cantrell

by Paul Hond Published Fall 2012
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Photograph by Rayon Richards

Cantrell’s charms also attracted Elvis Costello, who asked her to open for him during a leg of his 2002 US tour. (Cantrell, who to support her music worked as a vice president in equity research at Bank of America — again, her story is not to be confused with Loretta Lynn’s — was granted leave, and played eighteen dates with Elvis.)

Now, at the Loveless Barn, Cantrell and Spencer play the title track from her second album, When the Roses Bloom Again, a haunting hymn written in 1901 by Will D. Cobb and Gus Edwards about a promise made by a soldier to his sweetheart before he goes off to war. Cantrell’s understated vocals meet the doomful narrative, reminding you what a skillful storyteller she is. Cantrell never tells you what to feel. Never murders a lyric. Gently, she walks you to the edge of sorrow’s river. I’ll be with you when the roses bloom again.

The soldier, Cantrell sings, has fallen in the fray.

I am dying, I am dying
And I know I’ll have to go
But I want to tell you
Before I pass away.

As the soldier asks to be taken to the “far and distant river, where the roses are in bloom,” you feel the pressure behind your eyes. You wonder if the sweetheart will be there, waiting.

A Death in the Family

Precious memories, how they linger
How they ever flood my soul

The voices rise inside the Church of Christ in Hendersonville, just east of Nashville. On the carpeted steps behind the flower-wreathed casket, Ricky Skaggs and the Whites sing songs of praise. The large church is filled with family and friends, people from the music business, Opry members and performers. Cantrell is there, too, paying her respects. The Lord called Kitty Wells home on Monday, July 16, at the age of ninety-two.

“The Church of Christ is one of those churches that don’t allow a lot of ornamentation inside, which was fitting,” Cantrell says later. “It was just like my experiences with Kitty in person: very modest, very dignified, very touching.”

That Wells died on Cantrell’s birthday is not a detail that a person like Cantrell is likely to drop into conversation. She’s happier to explain what Wells’s success meant for female country artists (“nothing short of a revolution”), and the appeal of her straightforward style.

“Listening to Kitty is a different experience from listening to Patsy Cline or a lot of other singers who are maybe more technically expressive or embellished,” she says. “I always felt that Kitty, in the best of her songs, invests a lot of emotion, but there’s this restraint, almost as if the emotion is against her will. Like her heart has fallen, she can’t quite contain it, but she doesn’t want to make a show of it. So there’s a tension.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t get Kitty Wells. I never got her singing.’ What they’re basically saying is, ‘I don’t like her voice.’ Then other people say, ‘Oh, she’s a soul singer.’ That’s how I relate to it. This real presence of emotional content, but how much are we going to show? How much are we going to hold back? Maybe this is my own interpretation, but the people in my life I think of as Southern are sort of stoic. It was part of their upbringing — you weren’t supposed to show when you were hurting. Kitty’s rural audience could understand being both moved and sentimental without showing it too much.”

This description could fit Cantrell herself.

“Laura has a kind of out-of-time quality to her voice,” says Cerveris, who won a Tony in 2004 for his performance in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins and is currently starring in Evita on Broadway. “It feels like a direct line to classic country singers. There’s something so simple and vulnerable about her voice. But there’s also a steel-magnolia thing — a strength that’s intriguing and inviting. She makes you feel safe.”

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