Near the end of our meeting at Grill on the Park, Laura Cantrell eyed the elegant fabric of her pale pink twin set and admitted that she’d hesitated about coming to an interview dressed as she was. “Some people have preconceived notions about how a country singer should look,” she said a little self-consciously.
Whether your preconception of a country artist is Kitty Wells or Faith Hill, Ms. Cantrell does not fit the hair-centric stereotype. Though she hails from country’s capital, Nashville, Ms. Cantrell exuded an air of rock-ribbed New England refinement and reserve and the pale beauty of a young Katharine Hepburn.
Ms. Cantrell, 33, was dressed like a banker because she had come straight from her day job at Banc of America Securities, where she works an administrative job in the institution’s equity research department. But her cat’s-eye glasses and old-school red lipstick hinted that her heart belongs to another, more vibrant world with deep roots in the past.
Since 1993, Ms. Cantrell has been treating listeners to an aural version of that world on The Radio Thrift Shop , the noon-to-3-p.m. show that she hosts Saturdays on the free-form New Jersey radio station, WFMU. During her three hours on the air, Ms. Cantrell rambles along the timeline of country music, spinning old and new records and connecting the dots between the genre and other music forms such as jazz, or even punk. Despite country’s obsession with heartache–or perhaps because of it–there’s something extremely comforting about The Radio Thrift Shop , right down to the pop and hiss of the older records that Ms. Cantrell loves to play.
Late last year, Ms. Cantrell put out a more personal version of that world with Not the Tremblin’ Kind (Diesel Only), a dozen fine country songs, four of which are her own compositions. Like her radio show, the CD is a smart balance of the classic and the modern. Listening to the music on Not the Tremblin’ Kind , you can hear a bit of Merle Haggard, a touch of Rosanne Cash and, in Ms. Cantrell’s voice, some Lucinda Williams. And though Ms. Cantrell may not have Tammy Wynette’s pipes, she has no trouble conveying the combinations of strength, vulnerability and, most of all, melancholy that country music demands. Not the Tremblin’ Kind runs the gamut from the tried-and-true bottle-done-me-wrong lament of “The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter” to the spare ache of “My Heart Goes Out to You,” to the feminist fire of the album’s title track, whose protagonist warns: “You can play master but I won’t wear your chain.”
The album has earned Ms. Cantrell a number of accolades and a growing following. Rolling Stone magazine recently gave the album four stars, and she and her band have been playing for progressively larger audiences. She recently played the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and on April 19 she will open for the Mekons at the Mercury Lounge. Then, on April 21, Ms. Cantrell and her band will play for their largest New York audience when they open for Willie Nelson at the Beacon Theater. Ms. Cantrell also has a rabid fan base in the U.K., where Not the Tremblin’ Kind was released on the Scottish independent label Spit & Polish in March of 2000. She has made a number of tour stops there and even recorded two live sessions for British free-form guru John Peel in the past year.
When I told Ms. Cantrell that her album creates a world as vivid and comforting as the one that revolves around her weekly radio show, she smiled, but the look in her eyes seemed slightly suspicious. ” Hmm . Maybe,” she said. “If we did anything consciously in making the record, I wanted all of the songs to be of a certain quality. I get lots of stuff in the mail. And you know how frustrating it is when you get a record and there are only one or two good songs on it. Sometimes you don’t have to betray that to people listening on the radio, because you can play them one good song,” she explained.
But for her own album, she continued, “I consciously tried to find the best songs that I could that were beyond my own songs.” These included tunes by Jay Sherman-Godfrey of the World Famous Blue Jays (“Little Bit of You”), who plays guitar and organ on the album, Dan Prater (“Do You Ever Think of Me”) and Amy Allison (“The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter”). There’s even a tune co-written by Ms. Cantrell’s husband, Jeremy Tepper, who owns Diesel Only Records, the Brooklyn-based label that’s best known for its Rig Rock compilations of trucking music. (Ms. Cantrell’s album is Diesel Only’s first release devoted to a single artist.)
“And for my own songs, I wanted to make sure that they fit,” she said. “I didn’t want to have the embarrassing thing happen of having the clinkers on the record be my own songs.” She laughed. “So I had to kind of cull the list a little bit.”
The magnum opus of Ms. Cantrell’s own compositions is “Queen of the Coast,” a beautiful, bittersweet tune about a faded country-music diva (“Prettier than most / She could keep a room alive”) who gets her heart broken by two husbands, but eventually gets “back on the bus” to perform. “Have you forgotten / Have you forgiven / Tell me are you livin’ just a little in your past everyday?” goes the song’s chorus.
Ms. Cantrell said the song was inspired by Bonnie Owens, the ex-wife of two country legends, Buck Owens and, more recently, Merle Haggard, and a singer in her own right. Ms. Owens still performs with Mr. Haggard’s band, the Strangers, and Ms. Cantrell said that she was moved to write the song after seeing them in concert.
“I would always think, ‘What must that be like, touring with your ex-husband?'” Ms. Cantrell said between sips from her glass of water. “And also the dynamics of the band were funny. She’s standing way in the back. It seemed like there was a pecking order, and the backup singers were next to falling off the stage.”
Ms. Cantrell said she didn’t think Ms. Owens was aware of the song, then admitted that she “felt a little weird” about it. “I think if you listen to it one time through, you might think it’s sort of harsh or judgmental-sounding. I struggled with that when I was writing,” she said. “I [worried that the song] implies some kind of judgment over this person that I don’t really intend.”
Yet the song has a redemptive moment in a coffee shop, where a waitress recognizes the singer and tells her: “I saw you in Modesto almost 30 years ago / And I can still remember every song in your show.”
I told Ms. Cantrell that, for me, the line implied that maybe all the heartache is worth it if you can make an indelible impression on even just one person. “That’s what I was hoping,” she agreed. “Even if I quit now, if several years from now somebody said, ‘I bought your record and I really loved this song,’ that would be great. When you’re performing and you get that kind of feedback, where someone comes up to you and says, ‘You … touched me’–that,” concluded Ms. Cantrell, who is already at work on her next album, “is why you decide to try to write another one.”
Richard Thompson: The Original Slim Shady
On Friday, April 20, concertgoers at Town Hall will be regaled by a ridiculously talented guitarist, a powerful singer, and one of the few artists besides Bob Dylan who can be called without question both a great folk songwriter and a great rock songwriter. It just so happens that they are all the same person: Richard Thompson. Now well into his fourth decade as a professional musician, Mr. Thompson is on a solo acoustic tour to promote the recent release o f Action Packed , a best-of compilation focusing on the work he’s done since signing with Capitol Records in 1988.
During a recent interview at the Roger Smith Hotel in midtown, the impish Mr. Thompson, 52, professed something close to satisfaction with the new compilation, which features such alternately black-humored and heart-tugging selections as “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” “Beeswing” and “Razor Dance.” “None of it is painful for me to listen to,” he said, leaning back in his chair. Mr. Thompson was dressed in a sweatshirt, dark pants and sneakers; the severe black beret that he usually wears to hide his receding hairline was missing in action. “I still think all those songs are good songs, which is the most important consideration,” he explained. “Many of them were attempts to make pop records, and I’m not ashamed of that. Pop music’s about cheap emotion, and we all need a bit of that sometimes.”
Some might say that the emotions prevalent in Mr. Thompson’s brand of pop are more scary than cheap. Rage, jealousy, deep depression and outright meanness are frequent guests. But, he explained, “coming from traditional music”–Mr. Thompson began his career as a founding member of the pioneering 60’s folk-rock band, Fairport Convention–”morbid subjects are just common currency. Mining disasters, horrible train crashes–that’s what you sing about. But when you bring that sensibility over into pop music, a lot of people don’t know what to make of it. A lot of the humor in the songs doesn’t get picked up on. I’m often misunderstood,” he said, a glint of impudence in his pale blue eyes. “Just like Eminem.”
Fine as the Capitol collection is, those who are unfamiliar with just what makes Richard Thompson great might first want to investigate another compilation released last year, The Best of Richard & Linda Thompson: The Island Years , which features music that Mr. Thompson recorded with his then-wife Linda for Island Records in the mid-70’s. The release was culled from four nearly perfect albums– Henry the Human Fly , I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight , Hokey Pokey and Pour Down Like Silver –that are also well worth hearing in their entirety. Gorgeous meldings of traditional British folk, country, pop and rock, boosted by Linda’s plaintive voice and Richard’s authoritative, at times overpowering guitar work, the albums have been a major influence on many (though not nearly enough) subsequent singer-songwriters.
Then there are those who argue that no album can hope to duplicate the spine-tingling effect of a five-star Thompson live show. It’s an argument Mr. Thompson agrees with. “There’s always going to be a spark onstage that you don’t get from records,” he said. “A lot of my songs weren’t played too often before they were recorded, which means that the possibilities tend to expand over time when they’re played live–you find there’s more that you can do with them.”
A New York appearance by Mr. Thompson is always an event, but it’s not necessarily an uncommon one. Just a month ago, on March 21, he played a barely announced show at the tiny Joe’s Pub on Lafayette Street. Though joined briefly by his aspiring singer-songwriter son, Teddy, Mr. Thompson handled most of the concert on his own, sticking mainly to selections from Action Packed . The emotional tumult he tapped into nearly matched the force of the spring monsoon that was raging outside. To paraphrase Greil Marcus, onstage Mr. Thompson is both fool and executioner, joshing and pulling funny faces for the crowd one minute, aggressively barking out songs that ooze bile the next.
Toward the end of the interview, Mr. Thompson ‘fessed up to being heavily influenced in his youth not only by British traditional music and American rock ‘n’ roll but also by French pop artists like Edith Piaf and the recently deceased Charles Trenet. “Of course,” he added, “in today’s bountiful pop world”–here he flashed a brief, wry smile–”a lot of the aspects of life and death and relationships that those prewar French songwriters wrote about just aren’t addressed very often. And part of what I’ve tried to do as a songwriter is to look back at what used to be done but isn’t anymore, and see if I can use it in some way. It always interests me to see what got lost along the way in the development of music. Like a lot of songs from the Renaissance era are tremendously aggressive, with almost a rock ‘n’ roll energy and very witty lyrics. How did we go from that to Baroque music, which seems to have been designed mainly for people to pose elegantly to? And how can we bring some of that older spirit back?”
For a convincing answer to that last question, pay a visit to Town Hall April 20.