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Laura Cantrell Taps Old Friends To Cultivate New Roses

Liz Tormes

The 2020 lockdown of the music business interrupted artists at different phases and in different ways. For Laura Cantrell, it was less career momentum killer and more party pooper.

The New York-based alt-country veteran has never been in a hurry to rush albums out, but that fateful March, she was finalizing plans to fundraise for and produce her first new release since 2014. She had in mind a celebration of twenty years since her debut release Not The Tremblin’ Kind from 2000. Instead of booking a block of time with one band in one place, she’d move around, visiting places and collaborators from her two decades as a critically acclaimed songwriter.

In the end, that vision was deferred but not defeated, and a week after Cantrell appears at WMOT’s Roots On The River, she’ll release Just Like A Rose - The Anniversary Sessions. That it’s a 23rd anniversary and not a nice round 20th makes no difference, because the music is unsurprisingly superb.

“I could be accused of being careful sometimes,” says Cantrell over a Zoom link from her home in New York when asked about her, ahem, deliberate tempo of releasing albums. And while we’re all tired of talking about the pandemic’s upheaval, it did weigh on her freedom to execute what she intended. “It didn't feel like time to knuckle down and ‘make my masterpiece,’ necessarily. It felt more weighty, like wait, what is going on in the world? So even though I had more time on my hands, it took more time to sort out what it all meant, and what my place in it was. And when I felt the urge to make music, that felt good.”

Like A Rose, arriving June 9, does feel good as it draws from 1960s pop, old mountain textures, Bakersfield reverb, and the New York rumble that’s been Cantrell’s background noise since the 80s, when she moved there from her hometown, Nashville, of all places. It also draws on a variety of producers, co-writers and musicians, as she planned, including Buddy Miller, Paul Burch and Fats Kaplin. Opener “Push The Swing” is a sprightly song about relationship roles propelled by Telecaster and organ. “Bide My Time” floats on wings of pedal steel and mandolin.

We’ve been playing the rose songs on WMOT. “When The Roses Bloom Again” is a Celtic tinged folk ballad reworked by Jeff Tweedy and sung here with Steve Earle. The title track “Like A Rose” is all about Austin heroine Rosie Flores, who is the subject of the song, a guitar player on the song, and the producer of the record. The mutual affection is palpable.

There’s a lot more, including the most politically provocative song Cantrell has ever released to close out the project, and I’ll just let you wait to hear it and guess what outrageous behavior by which so-called leaders prompted “AWM - Bless” to be the album’s closer. I’d also recommend “I’m Gonna Miss This Town,” a song about time and change and distance that feels natural for a native Nashvillian who comes home sometimes to an unrecognizable place. Binding it together is Cantrell’s plaintive and pure voice, which may not be for everyone, but we who love it can’t get enough.

It started as I said in 2000, when Not The Tremblin’ Kind arrived in our mailboxes (real mailboxes!) like a dream for the new millennium. With the alternative country movement in full swing and the Americana idea ascendant, there were retro revivalists and edgy modernists, and Laura Cantrell deftly split the difference. Her plainspoken tone and striking sense of melody recalled the appeal of Kitty Wells, an artist she loved enough to create a whole tribute around her. Yet her circles included visionaries like Lambchop founder Kurt Wagner and insurgent country singer Robbie Fulks, not to mention her husband Jeremy Tepper, founder of trucker-centric indie label Diesel Only Records. Her homespun modernism made a lot of influential fans, including the late BBC DJ John Peel who established her in Europe.

Marvelous recordings followed over the years, even if they weren’t frequent. But Cantrell’s life was more diverse than many musicians who live for the road and studio. She’s long been a cherished voice on New York area alternative radio and SiriusXM, where today she hosts Dark Horse Radio, a show about the legacy of George Harrison. And she takes on projects, like her current States of Country, surveying all 50 states’ history with the genre, offered as live shows and as radio episodes. She’s almost halfway through.

“I've had to juggle all of those things, being a mom and a working musician,” she says. “And at some points, I knew I'm not going to really be traveling much at all. So I'm gonna go back to work for a while (corporate recruiting) and do that and have that help sustain my family and our home and everything while I figure out what the next window is when I'll be that other person and wear that other hat.”

That’s the Laura Cantrell who takes the stage at 1 pm on Saturday. We’ll be there to throw roses at the stage.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org