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Laura Cantrell isn't the trembling kind

By Brian Steinberg, December 2000

Laura Cantrell might have had one of those moments - the kind that let you know what you have been striving for all this time pushing her musical career is finally about to work out - as she played recently in Nashville.

The scene: Spring Water, a bar that Cantrell herself says "gets pretty rough." It's known in Music City as the place where alt.-country upstarts Lambchop got their start.

But here Cantrell was, in town along with the recent Americana Music Conference, an ad-hoc effort by musicians and record honchos to get more notice for roots music on the radio and elsewhere.

In the crowd were "a lot of family and friends from high school," says the Nashville native during a telephone interview from her Brooklyn home. "I'm looking at this room full of people that I would not normally all see in the same bar."

Many different crowds are hearing Cantrell these days. That's due in part to a cult-favorite radio program she hosts on WFMU, a New York metropolitan area FM station that is eclectic almost to a fault. And, of course, it's also due to her efforts to branch out. Cantrell, 33, who works full time at Banc of America Securities (she has spent 10 years in equity research on Wall Street), recently brought her first full-fledged album to U.S. shores.

"Not The Trembling Kind," an interesting effort, lacing country tones with some pop sensibilities. The disc features Will Rigby - a former dB and current Duke - on drums; Mary Lee Kortes on backing vocals and Jay Sherman-Godfrey almost everywhere.

Cantrell brings four originals into an interesting mix that also includes Amy Allison's "The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter" and Joe Flood's "Pile Of Woe."

And Cantrell's clear warble can run on everything from the woeful strains of the Allison song to "Do You Ever Think Of Me," a song that will remind of you of old Sir Douglas Quintet singles to the jaunty "Big Wheel."

And for all the twang the album contains, it also refracts country through a most modern-sounding filter.

Reviewers have been kind, even comparing Cantrell's clear-toned effort to Lucinda Williams, an analogy that Cantrell calls "flattering and daunting at the same time. I would not put myself in that category. How much more of a compliment could that be?"

The album has been at least two years in the making - if you don't count Cantrell's efforts at Columbia University to start playing guitar and play in bands. It was at this time that she began to start collecting country records, a hobby that would serve her well - but more on that later.

As she explains, "I had been playing in the lower rungs of the New York club scene."

While not playing on a regular basis, she did have some sporadic gigs. As the years passed, she came to a point where she had regular gigs and a regular group of musicians in tow.

As she began to gel with musicians like Rigby and Sherman-Godfrey, she says, the group put together a demo of sorts, consisting of four originals. "As it sort of trickled out, it still wasn't clear whether it was going to be a record or something we were going to shop to someone."

The story now takes a trip to Scotland. In March, Scottish indie label Spit & Polish-Shoeshine Records put out "Not The Tremblin' Kind, " and Cantrell began to tour Europe when time allowed.

The results were encouraging. "At every stop along the way, it was very exciting," she says. "I was sort of thinking this won't sound like a professional recording. We did a lot of home recording, and I wasn't sure what it was going to be like. It was a bit of an experiment."

Now, she adds, "Well, it holds up. It is very satisfying."

She has visited the British Isles three times this year.

The album hit American shores in October, released by Diesel Only, a Brooklyn-based label known for issuing compilations of hard-edged, roots-based songs by a number of New York bands (Cantrell's husband, Jeremy Tepper, heads the operation).

Even if her music career is just gaining momentum, Cantrell has other avenues to pursue. Her radio show, "Radio Thrift Shop," airs each Saturday afternoon on WFMU. She is prone to play just about anything that twangs, from Wilco to Hank Williams, with all sorts of little-known tunes and artists filling in along the way. The program has been on the air for about 7-1/2 years.

Originally, Cantrell says, she was looking to do a "program that could still be freeform, but based in what I know the best - kind of old-time strands of country music. At the same time, I started doing the show, there was sort of a moment when a lot of bands that aren't mainstream country bands were putting out records, Uncle Tupelo, and then Wilco and Son Volt. It seemed like a natural progression to start playing that stuff as well. It was really related to the old stuff. It has now kind of evolved in the show where we play old and new stuff and kind of travel from the old stuff to the new stuff."

As her musical career progresses, she intends to keep the country strain active.

"No matter what I do, and it could be songs with real different kinds of styles, I think of it as country music. I'm a country music fan first and foremost. There are a lot of things that I listen to," she adds, and while not everyone will call her debut a full-on country album, "I think of it as the country element that runs through pop music. I also kind of define my own thing. It is country to me, no matter how other people define country."