The Sunday Times
Sunday, July 13, 2003


It's the same old story.

Girl grows up in Nashville. Imbibes country music through osmosis. Gets a job at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Goes to Columbia University to study American literature. Becomes slightly famous after graduation playing old country records at a New Jersey radio station while working as a bank vice president managing the equity research department. Moonlights as a backup singer who bangs with drumsticks on a suitcase. Gets discovered by a plucky Scottish record label.

Quits day job to try music full time. Gets booked to play the Grand Ole Opry, where she will perform on Friday.

If you just look at the beginning and end, there's something of a Nashville clichι in the story of Laura Cantrell, proprietress of the "Radio Thrift Shop" on radio station WFMU (91.1 FM) and emergent musician in her own right. The rest of the story is a bit less conventional. And the real question about Ms. Cantrell, whose two CD's have made her a big draw in Britain and received rapturous reviews from Rolling Stone and others in this country, is whether in the end it's a story about a big-time singing career taking off or instead a sweet, eccentric enthusiast's odyssey that reads like a female, country version of Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity."

Even she's not sure.

"We've thought of moving back to Nashville, but it just doesn't seem the right place for now," said Ms. Cantrell, 35, who has the porcelain features and tastefully inflected Middle Tennessee diction of someone raised in Nashville's more polished precincts. "When I think of the scene there, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, those are titans. I'm nowhere near them in terms of natural talent and ability to do this. It just doesn't seem the right place to find my way."

Ms. Cantrell grew up in suburban West Nashville, the daughter of two lawyers with serious tastes in music, from Roy Acuff to Hoagy Carmichael. But her first record purchase was something by the Monkees, and she grew up in the 70's and 80's listening to Pat Benatar, Prince, the Cars and the Pretenders. Still, country music was everywhere in Nashville, whether the billboards featuring country stars, the aspiring musicians playing gigs at the pizza parlor or the would-be songwriters waiting on tables.

Not all of it was an inducement to take the scene seriously. "When the song `Elvira' is a big hit, and you're 15, it sounds pretty ridiculous," she said, referring to the 1981 novelty hit by the Oak Ridge Boys that was part white gospel, part barbershop quartet.

On the other hand, she was drawn to the Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline her father played, and she remembers odd moments when the music took, like sitting in the car in the grocery store parking lot, waiting for her mother to come out and being transfixed by George Jones singing "He Stopped Loving Her Today" on the radio.

After a summer job at the Country Music Hall of Fame, where she first caught the country bug, she took off for Columbia in 1985 and soon found herself playing old-time country on the campus radio station and knocking around campus gigs as an aspiring singer. In 1993, she found a way to keep her radio life going at tiny, not-for-profit WFMU. Her show, the "Radio Thrift Shop," a wildly eclectic mix not unlike the Roy Acuff-to-Hoagy Carmichael she listened to at home, became a fixture of the station and earned her a small but passionately loyal following. At the same time she fitfully worked at ginning up her own performing career, playing the lowest rung of New York bar gigs. After hooking up with some of the better players in the local country/roots scene, she recorded five songs for John Flansburgh of the group They Might be Giants in 1996 that somehow came to the attention of the Spit and Polish imprint of a Scottish label called Shoeshine Records.

And, as she tells it, the first time she got an inkling that anyone was paying much attention to her music was when she kept getting calls late at night from an agitated Scotsman, who turned out to be Francis Macdonald, a rock drummer who also ran the label. "This crazy nut kept calling us form Scotland, saying" — and here she goes from what's left of her uptown Nashville lilt to a manic Scottish burr — " `It's brilliant, Laura. It's brilliant. Press on. My mum loves it.' "

That led to her first record, "Not the Tremblin' Kind," released in March 2000, a combination of unknown pieces mostly picked from the fringes of the New York country scene and her own inspired originals. The influential British disc jockey John Peel raved about it, calling it "my favorite record of the last 10 years and possibly my life." Yikes. But all the American independents passed on it. It was later released by Diesel Only, the label owned by her husband, Jeremy Tepper, which had previously limited itself to compilations of trucker music. It was followed last year by "When the Roses Bloom Again," which was equally well received.

Meanwhile, she was still working at the bank, dashing out to appear on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," taking vacation time and a short leave to tour as an opening act for Elvis Costello, running spread sheets for the office between gigs and lunch at roadside Cracker Barrels. Even her album photos show her in dress-for-success suits, as if they were taken on her lunch break. It just got to be too much.

"I started to feel like the dividing line between those two parts of my life was getting dangerously thin," she said. "I couldn't maintain that level of juggling."

Finally, after administering bonus season at the bank she quit on April 4, she took off for a tour in Britain, and then other dates, including a free concert that's part of the series at Madison Square Park in Manhattan on Wednesday and her Grand Ole Opry debut.

It's a big leap and an uncertain one. The case for her music is much like the case for her radio show — it's a knowing, tasteful blend of genres with echoes of the Carter Family here, Kitty Wells there, bluegrass, the jangly guitars of the Byrds or the cheesy organ of early Doug Sahm. But the case against it could be the same thing — that it's almost too smart and tasteful — something cleverly programmed but coming more from the brain than the gut.

On the other hand, whether or not she ever hits it big, it's been a nice run. She plays with a proficient band of New York buckaroos, and she and Mr. Tepper, who in addition to running Diesel Only is an expert on jukeboxes, edits the Journal of Country Music and plays some music as well, recently moved with their tens of thousands of records to Queens. The two, who were married in the Tennessee Supreme Court chamber where the Scopes trial was argued, must rank as New York's First Couple of Twang — not quite George Jones and Tammy Wynette, but a nice niche.

And then there's that last scene in the unwritten Hornby novel, the date at the Opry, to look forward to — sort of. "My mom's taking the planning seriously," Ms. Cantrell said with a worried look. "I come home and there's a message on the machine: "Call home. I'll update you on the itinerary for the Opry weekend.' I'm like, "Oh Lord."