Born in Nashville, TN; married Jeremy Tepper. Education: Graduated from Columbia University, English major. Addresses: Record company--Matador Records, 625 Broadway, New York, NY 10012, website: http://www.matadorrecords.com. Website--Laura Cantrell Official Website: http://www.lauracantrell.com.
While many country singers dream of "making it" in Nashville, Laura Cantrell never appreciated the heritage of her home town until she moved to New York City. Her original plan had been to follow in her parents' footsteps: she would attend Columbia University and become a lawyer. The influence of Nashville was nonetheless in her blood, and Cantrell started to sing, in the evenings and on the weekends, while working as a Wall Street banker during the day. With the support of a day job, Cantrell would release three well-crafted albums between 2000 and 2005, and take her place at the forefront of the alternative country music scene. "Cantrell isn't the kind of alt-country artist who merges country with other genres to create radical new hybrids," wrote Mark Edwards in the London Sunday Times. "Instead, she adheres to classic country values."
Cantrell was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in the late 1960s, into a family of lawyers. Both of her parents collected old country music and standards, and Cantrell grew up to the sounds of Roy Acuff and Hoagy Carmichael. As a teen, however, she preferred pop and rock music. "For young people who grow up in Nashville," Cantrell told Edwards, "there could be quite a lot of resentment about country music." The first album she bought was by the Monkees, and she listened to popular groups like the Cars, the Pretenders, and Prince during the 1970s and 1980s.
Cantrell originally assumed she would follow in the footsteps of her parents and become a lawyer. But before Cantrell left Nashville to attend Columbia University in New York City, she worked a summer job at the Country Music Hall of Fame. "That jukebox played the same six records over and over again," she told Alison Oneacre at W Magazine. "It could have been the thing that drove you crazy, but for me something just clicked." Suddenly, Cantrell found herself intrigued by the heritage of her hometown, fascinated by the personalities and rich history of country music. "I came to realize there were all these very cool artists and music further back in country history," Cantrell told Roger Holland in Pop Matters, "and that it was actually a very rich, rewarding subject."
At Columbia, Cantrell studied English. She also learned to play guitar, met other country music fans, and began working as a volunteer DJ on WFMU in New Jersey. She hosted a show called Tennessee Border, and later hosted the long-running Radio Thrift Shop, a weekly program featuring both new and old country music. She literally picked up the old records from thrift shops and, being short of money, made a rule that she couldn't buy anything that cost more than two dollars. "It's been a great excuse to keep collecting records," Cantrell told Holland, "and keep spreading my own enthusiasm for whatever I'm into at the moment to a live audience." The positive feedback she received from the Radio Thrift Shop encouraged her to start performing live in New York City bars, both as a solo act and with Potters Field and the Bricks.
After college, Cantrell was faced with an age-old dilemma: if she wanted remain in New York City to pursue a career in music, she would have to find a steady daytime job. While many performers wait tables and wash dishes to support their budding career, Cantrell landed a position at a Wall Street bank. "I never thought of music as a hobby," she told Holland, "but living in New York, you have to pay the rent." She started as a research analyst at Bank of America Securities, eventually becoming a vice president at the firm. "I probably had a lot of preconceived notions of what working in Wall Street meant," she told Edwards, "but there's a lot of intelligent, sensitive, not always greedy, people there, and if you really scratch the surface, quite a few artists."
In 2000 Cantrell released Not the Tremblin' Kind on Diesel Only, a label operated by Cantrell and her husband, Jeremy Tepper. Harp called the album "a marvel of simplicity and grace," while Erik Hage in All Music Guide called it "an evocative blend of neo-traditionalist country." Not the Tremblin' Kind was rich in music history, evoking country music queens like Kitty Wells from the 1950s and 1960s. In 2002 Cantrell followed up with When the Roses Bloom Again. "There's hardly a musical misstep on this, her second album," wrote Jon Caramanica in Rolling Stone, "a decidedly forlorn set of lost-love tales that never lacks for charm." The album was also released on Diesel Only, and like Not the Tremblin' Kind, it included four Cantrell originals.
Performer Elvis Costello noted of the album to Word magazine, "If Kitty Wells made 'Rubber Soul' it would sound like Laura Cantrell." Cantrell sent Costello a note, thanking him for his compliment. This led to an invitation to open for Costello on the American leg of his 2003 tour. Cantrell used 17 days of vacation time to play these shows, and when her vacation time had been used up, she quit her Wall Street job. While working as a banker, Cantrell told Michael Hogan in Vanity Fair, "I would tell myself, 'Well, this is the best thing we can do under these circumstances.' I wanted to remove the 'under these circumstances' clause ... I wanted it to be, 'This is the best we can do.'" Cantrell also returned to her hometown of Nashville to perform at the Grand Ole Opry.
While Cantrell had been happy with Not the Tremblin' Kind and When the Roses Bloom Again, she told Robert Baird in Harp magazine, "There was still something kind of missing." Humming By the Flowered Vine, interestingly, was released on Matador, a label known for alternative rock artists like Liz Phair and Barbara Manning. The support of the label also made it easier for Cantrell to leave her nine-to-five job behind. "Humming By the Flowered Vine is an album that's a joy to listen to without sounding simple or hollow, and resonates with an evocative beauty comprised of both compassion and intellect," wrote Mark Deming at All Music Guide. "This music easily raises the bar for this gifted artist."
In the summer of 2005, Cantrell continued touring to support Humming By the Flowered Vine in the United States, England, and Ireland. She also remained committed to the Radio Thrift Shop, creating a special four-part program featuring guests John Prine and Arlo Guthrie for BBC Radio Scotland. Cantrell has been profiled on NPR's Weekend Edition, the World Café, and the BBC's Andy Kershaw Show. While she has continued to expand her audience and gain respect as a country artist, she has also resisted being pigeonholed. "Maybe I'm a bit of a contrarian," she told Baird. "I don't want to be shoe-horned into a pattern that's worked for somebody else."
by Ronnie D. Lankford Jr
Laura Cantrell's Career
Founded Radio Thrift Shop, early 1990s; recorded Not the Tremblin' Kind, 2000, and When the Roses Bloom Again, 2002; toured with Elvis Costello, 2003; signed to Matador Records and released Humming By the Flowered Vine, 2005.
- Selected discography
- Not the Tremblin' Kind Diesel Only, 2000.
- When the Roses Bloom Again Diesel Only, 2002.
- Humming By the Flowered Vine Matador, 2005.
- Harp, November/December 2002; June 2005.
- Rolling Stone, January 23, 2003.
- Sunday Times (London, England), November 10, 2002, p. 19.
- Vanity Fair, July 2005.
- W Magazine, October 2002, p. 147.
- WORD, March 2003, p. 126.
- "Laura Cantrell," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (September 10, 2005).
- "Not the Tremblin' Kind," Pop Matters, http://www.popmatters.com (September 10, 2005).