Away From Home

Nashville native offers blend country instrumentation and modern sensibilities

Laura Cantrell
Not the Tremblin’ Kind (Diesel Only)

If country singer Laura Cantrell had stayed in her hometown of Nashville, she might never have made her debut album, Not the Tremblin’ Kind. Had she been surrounded by “the biz,” she might never have connected with the late-night, country-bar sound that suffuses the record. As it is, Cantrell moved to New York 15 years ago and to this day has never sung in a Music City club. Having spent much of the last 10 years cultivating a love for traditional country music by kicking around the Big Apple’s underground country-music scene—as well as hosting The Radio Thrift Shop on New Jersey community station WFMU—Cantrell recorded her debut album in 1999 and caught the attention of the tiny Scottish indie label, Spit & Polish, which released the disc in the UK this past March.

Based in Glasgow, Spit & Polish specializes in “down-home” Americana. Cantrell is perfect for their tastes. Her voice is engaging, gentle, and sweet, and her appeal should extend both to straight-country fans and to indie rockers who learned to love fiddles and steel guitars late in their musical education. In the UK, she’s been joined onstage by members of Belle & Sebastian and Radio Sweethearts. After her record found some success abroad—including raves and airplay from BBC deejay John Peel—Diesel Only Records decided to release it stateside. Just as unique as Spit & Polish in its own right, Diesel Only is owned and operated by Cantrell’s husband, Jeremy Tepper, who formed the label 10 years ago to release 45s for truck stop jukeboxes. This is the label’s first full-length single-artist release.

Cantrell has the best kind of voice for a female country singer: deceptively frail on first listen, but nimble and easily confident when it meshes with the spare, winsome country music of her backing band. Though steeped in a honky-tonk sensibility, Cantrell’s record isn’t a throwback to Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn. Instead, her music has far more in common with such contemporaries as Kelly Willis (who made an appearance on Diesel Only several years ago) and Allison Moorer. Like those two singers, Cantrell is a quiet outlaw, blending traditional country instrumentation with a contemporary mind-set while avoiding the sassy pop rock currently in vogue among female country artists.

It’s in her voice that Cantrell most asserts her individuality. Eschewing the faint drawl of Willis and Moorer, she sings in a more “nondenominational” style, if you will. At times, she pushes her tenor as low as it will go, and as she soars from the low monotone up through her register, she gives the songs their hooks.

The material here comes from three sources. Some songs were lovingly selected by Cantrell from her vast collection of old country records. A few of the tunes come from contemporaries, among them Amy Allison (daughter of jazz pianist Mose Allison), who pitches in “The Whisky Makes You Sweeter.” The remaining third are Cantrell’s own, including “Queen of the Coast,” which outlines the life of a down-on-her-luck country singer. Here, the guitars quietly strum behind Cantrell’s evocative voice; as on most of the songs, the sweet harmony vocals from Robin Goldwasser and Mary Lee Kortes lend an old-time, WSM feel.

“Churches Off the Interstate,” another Cantrell original, perfectly masters contemporary country’s emphasis on catchiness while retaining a hard-country sound. The lap steel and acoustic guitar weave in between her vocals, giving a live feel to the song. And as with every track on Not the Tremblin’ Kind, the song’s steady rhythm keeps the feet tapping, while the tastefully spare accompaniment—the hard-panned acoustic guitars and quiet bass—leaves plenty of room for Cantrell’s voice. Occasionally, the production is a little rough around the edges, but it only adds to the record’s country-bar atmosphere. A genuine booze ballad that utilizes the best of Cantrell’s range, “The Whisky Makes You Sweeter” gently rocks along: “Well, the whisky makes you sweeter than you are,” she sings. “If I’d quit drinkin’ sooner, I’m sure I wouldn’t have gone that far.” It’s an acknowledgment of the desperation of loneliness—one that sounds just as poignant coming from modern-day New York City as it would have coming from 1950s Nashville.

“Two Seconds” is the best thing here. The tune is quiet and laid-back and, even more so than “Whisky,” captures a very direct, heartbreaking timbre in Cantrell’s voice, which slides easily up and down the melody, hitting all the right buttons. The distance between the lines “ ’Cause I’m almost certain” and “That he’s going crazy / for two seconds of your love” is the length of one held breath. The anticipation of what she will sing next is as emotive as her tender voice.

Throughout the album, Cantrell sounds like the girl behind the mic at a local country bar: unassuming, but knowing and moving at the same time. Thanks to her subtle yet potent vocals, her shrewd song choices, and the band’s apt backing, Not the Tremblin’ Kind is filled with the kind of tuneful country songs that we don’t hear enough of these days. But then, as Cantrell’s Nashville-to-New York tale suggests, maybe we’ve been looking in the wrong place.

This piece appeared in the Nashville Scene.