Laura Cantrell has got a busy month coming up. She’s has a five year old daughter and a full time job as a consultant at Wall Street investment bank and she’s starting a four week series of shows at New York’s Hill CountryBBQ on Thursday (Feb 2nd).
We met at the towering corporate edifice that serves as her workplace in midtown Manhattan and we talked about the new residency and last year’s album “Kitty Wells Dresses”.
“I hate the term ‘the singing banker’.” She rolled her eyes. “Is that all they could dream up? This (job) is a means to an end.”
Laura has managed to find that rare balance of parenthood, music and work and in a 13 year career she has managed to find time to release seven highly acclaimed albums. We sat in oddly shape, expensive chairs in the lobby but pretty soon our surroundings drifted away as we talked about the main focus in her life: Music. She’s a Nashville native and still has a distinctive Tennessee slant to her voice. Growing up with the Grand Ol’ Opry as a neighbor the tradition of country music was not lost on her but she did not embrace country music right away.
“When I was in Nashville as a teenager a lot of the music I listened to came from college radio. It was Just before R.E.M. blew up, I was listening to Elvis Costello.’
It wasn’t until she took a part-time job at the Country Music Hall of Fame, that she started to pay more attention to the music.
“The job was just a cheesy summer job but I was impressed by the way that country music was been treated in a more scholarly way."
She took this new academic approach to the music with her to Columbia University in New York where she studied accountancy. Pretty soon she fell in with the music geeks at WKCR, the university’s radio station. There she met all manner of experts.
‘There were guys who could tell you the numbers on any Blue Note record you wanted. There were people dedicated to the study of classical records. I just seemed to fit in as the resident country music expert.'
Her interest became more hands on: “ I was the girl in the dorm room with the guitar.” she remembered, talking of nights spent learning, among other things, Kitty Well’s songs. “I was trying to figure it all out.’’ Laura was soon broadcasting her own radio show on WFMU called The Radio Thrift Shop.
With ‘Kitty Wells Dresses’ Laura has put together an album of songs of arguably the most important female voice in country music history. Kitty opened the door for Tanya Tucker, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton. Laura wrote the title song with friend Amy Allison after she was invited by the Country Music Hall of Fame to present a musical program for the "Kitty Wells: Queen of Country Music" exhibition in 2009. When choosing the songs she also wanted to include the role of Kitty's husband Johnnie Wright. Laura chose songs that were representative of Kitty and Johnnie's career. When Laura met them both before the record came out, she was delighted to find she had their seal of approval. Kitty told her she liked it.
“Kitty played it close to her vest but Johnnie was particularly amused by the number of his songs I had chosen. For the time, Johnnie was really a really interesting character. He was more popular than Kitty at first but as she gained popularity, (with her 1952 breakthrough song ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’). He said: 'Well let’s give this a go!' And her stepped aside for her. That sort of open-mindedness wasn’t common in Nashville In the 1950’s. That’s why there’s a lot of Johnnie’s songs on the record.”
Laura’s approach to the record wasn't to make a just another tribute album. This collection of songs has a brighter tempo and a punchier production than the 50’s classics. Her voice rings out as clear as a bell accurately following the melodies made famous by Kitty Wells but with her own voice. It's still obviously a Laura Cantrell record.
“I didn’t want to make it a copy of her music of the time. You know the shuffle’s got to be just right..” She laughed, mimicking a drummer crouched over a drum swishing away. “I wanted it to be more of her spirit and attitude.”
During her upcoming four week residency at Hill Country BBQ she’ll be playing a different set each week. On February 2nd Laura will be performing a set of Kitty Wells' music. The February 9th show will be devoted to the Radio Free Song club that veritable New York radio institution frequented by many a songwriter with an unfinished melody.
“A lot of the songs I worked on for the RFSC will be part of my recordings for this year.” Laura told me.
February 16th will be a bluegrass extravaganza. And February 23rd Laura describes the evening as a 'reunion' where she’ll be playing with all sorts of musicians and singers she’s played with over the years including Michael Cerveris guitarist Dave Schramm, New York songwriter Sam Bisbee, producer Jay Sherman Godfrey and a great lineup of backing musicians including Jon Graboff from Ryan Adams Cardinals, fiddler Kenny Kosek, guitarist Mark Spencer from Son Volt, Jeremy Chatzky from Springsteen's Seeger Sessions band and Steve Goulding of the Mekons.
Neville Elder is a photographer, writer and leader of the folk rock band Thee Shambels. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.