Laura Cantrell – Simple twist of fate
“I figured out a way to stay in New York, which was get a day job and then be involved in the things you love to do and it’ll work itself out. I had no huge goal of conquering the music business. I got to do cool things, and all those things just made me want to do more music.”
Amid an era of renewed interest in traditional American music, a popular and eclectic New York radio station broadcasts the brainchild of a well-known collector of old songs, cultural artifacts that might be lost were it not for her passion for keeping them alive. This week’s program spins around a folk song involving the struggles of a young couple and the kindness of a wealthy relative. The latter leaves the pair an inheritance — a favorite armchair — and they treasure it, never knowing that stuffed inside is all the money they could ever need. Live musicians perform in the studio, and the show’s producer acts out her role as the elderly benefactor of the story.
It’s the mid-1930s. Alan Lomax is combing the country collecting the imperiled music of America’s receding backcountry landscape, but intrepid women already have taken to the Appalachians, engendering their own lore as “songcatchers.” In 1927, the same year Carl Sandburg debuted his American Songbag, one such collector, Ethel Park Richardson of Chattanooga, Tennessee, published her landmark American Mountain Songs. Her related regional radio shows attracted the attention of NBC, who lured her to New York. For the next decade she produced “Heartthrobs Of The Hills”, a weekly NBC melodrama based on mountain songs and enlivened with performances by whatever well-known traditional musicians were passing through town.
Laura Cantrell is pretty sure she’d read about Richardson (perhaps in Mary Bufwack and Robert Oermann’s Finding Her Voice, a history of women in country music) at some point before learning that she and Richardson were related. A series of e-mails sprung the news when her mother’s side of the family dug into their genealogy recently and found Richardson to be the sister of Cantrell’s great-grandfather. By then, Cantrell already had put in her own decade or so of keeping traditional music alive with her eclectic “Radio Thrift Shop”, a Saturday staple on the New York area’s popular WFMU. Cue “Twilight Zone” theme here.
“I had this fantasy that these were the most amazing radio shows and if I could ever hear one it would just blow my mind,” Cantrell says. “NBC donated all of their radio stuff to the Library of Congress in the late ’70s. They had five or six of her programs, so I went and checked them out. It was funny because it was like 1935 in the Depression and…they’re very dated. They’re about things going on at that time and they sort of have the morals of that period.”
If Cantrell was disappointed to find she wasn’t the first radio personality in her family (and she was, a little), surely she’s the first to make a splash as a musician and songwriter in her own right. Her June 21 release on Matador Records, Humming By The Flowered Vine, includes in its range of country and pop-tinged pleasures a nod to her ancestor: “Poor Ellen Smith” was documented in Richardson’s American Mountain Songs.
Cantrell grew up thinking that law was the family business. Her parents and one aunt are Nashville attorneys. Expecting to follow suit, Cantrell headed to Columbia University. After falling in with a crowd of musicians and fans there — Boston indie rockers and North Carolina punks — she landed her own radio show at Columbia’s WKCR.
“When I really started to learn about country music,” she says, “I was already in New York and starting to collect records. I graduated with an English degree, but I probably spent a lot more time at WKCR than I did in the library.” Her college radio show, “Tennessee Border”, provided the foundation for “Radio Thrift Shop”. “It was really great for me that, without knowing it, I was walking into a place that really valued kind of this historical presentation of music,” she says.
When not studying English, thrift-shopping for old country records, or broadcasting at WKCR, Cantrell learned guitar and then began performing wherever she could — solo at dorms and coffeehouses, or elsewhere with one of two bands: the folk-country Potters Field or the lo-fi noise outfit Bricks, both with a pre-Superchunk Mac McCaughan. “Totally not anything country about it,” Cantrell says of the latter act, “although I kept joking with the guys that I was trying to turn them into my country band. It’s one of those things you do with your friends — get together and make noise and run the four-track and see what it sounds like.” One McCaughan pal who really liked how it sounded was Matador founder-to-be Gerard Cosloy, who booked the band to play one of a series of concerts he organized for CBGB’s Record Canteen.
After college, Cantrell needed a job to support her music habit, so she landed one with a Wall Street bank, eventually working her way up to vice president for research. All the while she was also building a broad and devoted fan base for “Radio Thrift Shop”. And she continued to play music.
“What I did was I figured out a way to stay in New York, which was get a day job and then be involved in the things you love to do and it’ll work itself out,” she explains. “I had no huge goal of conquering the music business. I got to do cool things, and all those things just made me want to do more music. But I did it for the fun of it.”
Which was why she started recording, too. “We’d been performing at bar gigs and things kind of sounded good,” she figured, “and maybe it would be a good time to sort of capture that.” Imagine her surprise when she returned home from a Thanksgiving trip to find her answering machine full of messages from a Scottish label. “Basically a tape got passed from one guy to the next and the label in Scotland heard it,” she recalls. “They were starting sort of an Americana label [Shoeshine] and they just thought it would be good to put it out.”