Tennessee Rose

The return of singer Laura Cantrell

by Paul Hond Published Fall 2012
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Radio Days

We were children of the radio, of the Top 40 throbbing from the console, of the well-made three-minute pop song. This was our lyric poetry, dense with emotions we were too young to understand, carried on melodies we could have enjoyed prenatally. As we sang along, we absorbed messages, structures. We came alive. We fell in love with songs long before we fell in love with people. Sentiments and imagery molded expectations. We could not have known what we were getting into.

Photograph by Eson ChanCantrell’s music takes us away, back to a blanket in the green, green grass, the transistor radio, the trouble-free days. Records are scattered on the banks of a girl’s bed. An innocence runs through it. Flowers sway and bend. In time, the river will be poisoned. There will be loss, heartbreak, ruin. How will she make it through?

Peel away the petals, behold the stem of steel.

Songs ricocheted through the old house. Cantrell’s mother, a lawyer, listened to Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Porter and Dolly. Her father, a judge on the Tennessee Court of Appeals, preferred the Great American Songbook: Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein. Outside, the WSM tower pulsated its giant rings, sending the Grand Ole Opry to millions every Saturday night. Then there was the rest of Nashville, country-music central, for better and for worse.

“There was a great parallel education going on. Studying the Core and learning to be a critical reader, and doing the radio show.”

She left at eighteen. At Columbia, she majored in English and deejayed at WKCR, where, as an actual Tennessean, she was asked to revive the station’s Tennessee Border program. “There was a great parallel education going on,” Cantrell says. “Studying the Core, reading and learning to be a critical reader, and doing the radio show.” Taking Wallace Gray’s Eliot, Joyce, Pound class, then pulling Hank Williams records. Going from Langston Hughes to Bessie Smith. Trading records with Mac McCaughan ’89CC, who would later start the band Superchunk and cofound the indie label Merge Records. (A typical trade: the Louvin Brothers for Billy Bragg.) All these strands buzzing inside her before she ever strummed a chord.

She started singing, and formed a campus group that played covers of Wells, Wanda Jackson, Johnnie and Jack. In her senior year, she took guitar lessons. She heard from traditional country-music fans around the city (“This is Hubba in the Bronx, can you play some Hank Snow?”) and got turned on to an alt-country scene downtown. It wasn’t until she graduated that she began writing songs of her own. She wanted to work in radio, in programming. A job at ABC didn’t go where she’d hoped, so she took the gig in finance. In her spare time she volunteered at WFMU, the independent freeform radio station out of New Jersey, and in 1993 was given a show, which she named Radio Thrift Shop. As the “Proprietress,” she played all stripes of American folk music, the stuff you didn’t hear anywhere else. “My role on the radio,” she says, “was to share obscure music and to play more women artists.”

In 1997 Cantrell married Jeremy Tepper, a partner in Diesel Only Records, an indie label in Brooklyn. It was Diesel Only that brought out Not the Tremblin’ Kind in the United States in the fall of 2000, and into the country-music bin of Mondo Kim’s.

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