“If Kitty Wells made ‘Rubber Soul’ it would sound like Laura Cantrell.”
— Elvis Costello in WORD magazine (U.K.)
“My favourite record of the last ten years and possibly my life is an LP by a New York woman born in Nashville called Laura Cantrell. It’s country, and I don’t know why I like it, but it has the same sort of effect on me as Roy Orbison had in the ‘60s.”
— John Peel, BBC Radio 1
In Their Own Write: Adventures in Music Journalism
(Sanctuary Publishing, 2001)
On stage, on record and on the radio, Laura Cantrell has made a name for herself by combining a love of traditional country and folk music with a modern sensibility that informs a sound both timeless and thoroughly original. A native of Nashville that has spent half her life in New York City, Laura’s unique perspective is evident on her latest album, Humming by the Flowered Vine (Matador Records).
Produced by JD Foster (Richard Buckner, Calexico) with cover art by Fred Tomaselli, Humming by the Flowered Vine features ten extraordinary songs both crafted and caught. Of the four Laura originals, "Khaki & Corduroy" and “Old Downtown” are both meditations on being a transplanted Southerner in New York City, which also figures prominently in covers of Emily Spray’s “14th Street” and Lucinda Williams’ previously unreleased “Letters.” Inspired by the life of West Coast country music pioneer Rose Maddox, “California Rose” joins Laura’s previous tributes to Bonnie Owens (“Queen of the Coast”) and Molly O’Day “Mountain Fern”). A version of the Appalachian murder ballad “Poor Ellen Smith” comes from a 1927 book entitled American Mountain Songs, published by Laura’s great, great aunt Ethel Park Richardson, a “songcatcher” from Chattanooga, TN, who moved to New York City and produced the NBC radio drama “Heart-throbs of the Hills” throughout the 1930s.
Since moving to New York City from her hometown of Nashville in the mid-‘80s, Laura has been a fixture on Big Apple airwaves. She began her radio career at Columbia University’s WKCR, and after graduation became a volunteer on the legendary free-form station WFMU in Jersey City, where she has served as “the proprietress” of the weekly, award-winning Saturday afternoon “Radio Thrift Shop” since 1993. In the Summer of 2005, four special episodes of the “Radio Thrift Shop” were commissioned by the BBC to air on Radio Scotland.
As a recording artist, Laura first reached an international audience with her debut album, Not the Tremblin’ Kind (2000), which she followed with When the Roses Bloom Again (2002). Both albums received rave reviews (including four-stars in Rolling Stone) and earned her such celebrated fans as Elvis Costello (who personally selected her to open 17 dates on his 2002 U.S. tour) and the late John Peel. Her unique kinship with the legendary BBC DJ yielded five “Peel Sessions,” including three broadcast from his home in East Anglia. She has also appeared in session for many other prestigious BBC programs, including Bob Harris Country, the Andy Kershaw Show, OneMusic, and Woman’s Hour.
Back home in America, she has appeared on public radio programs such as All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, On Point, Studio 360, World Café, Mountain Stage, KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic and Vin Scelsa’s Idiot’s Delight on WFUV. She has also been profiled in the New York Times Arts & Leisure section, Vanity Fair, and Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine, appeared on the Grand Ole Opry and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and has headlined performances at the Library of Congress Coolidge Auditorium and Jazz at Lincoln Center’s “American Songbook” series.
The daughter of two Nashville attorneys, Laura was exposed to much country music during her childhood, and later got a first-hand education as a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. After arriving in New York she began singing in college dorm rooms and coffee houses, performing with groups like the Oswalds and Bricks, led by Mac Macaughan, who later formed Superchunk and Merge Records (which released a Bricks CD and pair of 7-inch singles). After college she moved from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There she befriended John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants, who recruited her to sing on “The Guitar” on the band’s 1992 album Apollo 18 (Laura also appears in the video for the song). Flansburgh also offered to issue an EP of Laura’s original songs on his “Hello CD of the Month Club” subscription service, and produced four tracks that were released in June 1996, and reissued as The Hello Recordings in 2004.
Laura continued writing and performing locally in New York, and in 1999 a four-song demo produced by guitarist Jay Sherman-Godfrey reached Francis Macdonald, head of the Shoeshine Records label in Glasgow, Scotland, and drummer for Teenage Fanclub, BMX Bandits and Scotland’s premier country band, the Radio Sweethearts. With Macdonald’s encouragement, Laura recorded additional songs to complete Not The Tremblin’ Kind, which was released on Shoeshine’s newly-launched Spit & Polish imprint in March of 2000. Laura began touring the U.K. backed by the Radio Sweethearts (as well as members of Belle & Sebastian and the Battlefield Band), received airplay from John Peel on Radio 1 and the Bob Harris Country program on Radio 2, and was profiled by Mojo magazine and other key national press.
In the fall of 2000, Not the Tremblin’ Kind was released in the U.S. by Diesel Only Records, a label run by her husband Jeremy Tepper that had previously focused exclusively on truck driving music and jukebox singles. The album received simililar kudos in the U.S., including glowing reviews in Rolling Stone, U.S.A. Today, Country Weekly, and Billboard magazine. The follow-up, When the Roses Bloom Again, was released simultaneously in the U.S. and U.K. and led to more extensive press coverage and touring, including opening slots for Elvis Costello (U.S.), Joan Baez (U.S.) and Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys (U.K. and Ireland), and appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, Cambridge Folk Festival (U.K.), Celtic Connections (U.K.), Blue Highways Festival (Holland) and Kilkenny Rhythm & Roots Weekend (Ireland).
In order to support her musical endeavors, Laura took an administrative position at a Wall Street investment firm. After surviving a series of mergers and acquisitions during the 1990s, she found herself the Vice President, Business Manager of Banc of America Securities Equity Research Department. This highly demanding day job found itself increasingly at odds with her burgeoning musical career (during this time she was profiled in both the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times of London), and in the Spring of 2003 she resigned her position to concentrate on her music full time. After leaving Wall Street behind, she was featured in the Oprah magazine O in a section dedicated to women who followed their “passion.”
More to the point, Laura has followed her instincts — whether selecting songs to record or to play on the radio — and her heart, with a sweetly impassioned voice that Rolling Stone has described as “pitched somewhere between the bluesy realism of Lucinda Williams and the vintage femininity of Kitty Wells.” It is a voice that conveys a deep reserve of emotion, that has connected with people on two continents, and that is uniquely her own.