Laura Cantrell is set to perform at Manchester’s Ruby Lounge in support of her new album Laura Cantrell at the BBC, which is released this Friday 13 May.
Over the past 16 years, Laura Cantrell has been a familiar presence on the U.K. music scene. The Nashville-born, New York-based artist has developed a loyal audience through consistent touring, and numerous radio interviews and sessions for BBC Radio 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 Music, most notably with Bob Harris and the late John Peel, who famously championed her debut album, Not The Tremblin’ Kind, and described it as, “My favourite album of the last ten years and possibly my life”
Her new release, Laura Cantrell At The BBC compiles the best of her UK radio performances from 2000-2005, including several previously unreleased songs, and traces the arc of Cantrell’s rise as an Americana artist on the airwaves of the venerable British Broadcasting Corporation.
The release comes 16 years after Laura Cantrell released her debut album Not The Tremblin’ Kind on Shoeshine/Spit and Polish, an indie label based in Glasgow. Shoeshine’s founder, Francis Macdonald (a member of popular Scottish band Teenage Fanclub), had contacted Cantrell after hearing a four-song demo recording passed along by a mutual friend in the U.S.
At the time, Cantrell was a young singer with growing stature in New York’s underground Americana scene and a widely known country music radio program, “The Radio Thrift Shop” heard weekly on landmark freeform station WFMU. Francis remembers, “When I heard those initial four recordings by Laura my jaw hit the floor. I called her to say, ‘These aren’t demos, Laura, it’s the start of an album and if you finish it I want to release it!’”
“I left college knowing I wanted to work with music and radio, and I went after it any way I could, funding my band and my radio program with a full time job.” Cantrell continues, “I landed on Wall Street randomly, looking for a job and soon discovered that working in the financial services business afforded a little extra money for creative projects. Pursuing my craft without having to make money from it let me be free in my creative choices. Not many female country singers in the 1990s were writing songs about the singers of an earlier generation like Bonnie Owens or Molly O’Day. But I didn’t have a record deal or the next gig riding on it, so I did as I pleased and took my time, playing the old music on the radio and contemplating it in my own songs and shows.”
It hadn’t yet crossed Cantrell’s mind that there was an audience for her music beyond the local “alt country” scene in the U.S. “When Francis approached me about releasing my music in the U.K., I hadn’t thought a lot about putting a record out and touring outside the U.S., my attention was really more local. But Shoeshine’s offer presented a great opportunity, and if my music didn’t catch on, I would at least get to travel to Scotland, where I’d not been before.”
A modest release and a few gigs in Scotland could have been the beginning and end of the story. But Cantrell hadn’t appreciated the impact and exposure of the BBC and support for Not The Tremblin’ Kind built both regionally on Radio Scotland, and nationally through the programmes hosted by John Peel, Bob Harris, Andy Kershaw, Gideon Coe and Rob da Bank, Cantrell found herself celebrated by the best radio minds and voices in the U.K. “I’d been smitten with radio in my childhood – my dad would set the transistor radio on my nightstand until I fell asleep. I’d listened to the famous country station WSM, home of the Grand Ole Opry, and landed in college at Columbia University’s well regarded college station, WKCR. Within just a few months of Tremblin’ Kind’s release, my music was getting exposure on some of the U.K.’s best, most revered programs”.
Laura Cantrell At The BBC features performances recorded at the BBC’s famous Maida Vale Studios, Broadcasting House in London and the more informal setting of “Peel Acres,” John Peel’s home studio in rural Suffolk. “Going back through all the performances, I remembered how intimidating it was walking into Maida Vale with its gorgeous rooms for orchestras and plaques of The Beatles on the wall.”
Song selections range from fan favorites of Cantrell’s catalogue like “The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter” and “Bees” to covers like contemporary songwriter Cheri Knight’s “All Blue,” country rarities like “Rain Boy,” and standards such as “Legend In My Time”. Cantrell adds, “As we put this album together, I appreciated anew what great experiences these sessions were and how they helped me mature as an artist.”
Some of Cantrell’s favorite performances in this collection come from her visits to “Peel Acres.” Cantrell recounts, “I had known the name ‘John Peel’ and saw the Peel Sessions discs in the record library at WFMU and had even tried to tune in his world service program on the short wave. But I never imagined that my music would attract his attention. I hadn’t known how wide ranging his taste really was and or that he’d spent time in Texas in the early 1960s and heard a lot of American country music. It blew my mind the first time someone told me they heard one of my songs on his show, and I was astounded when he asked me to do a Peel session. By the time we were invited to play at Peel Acres, I’d started to settle into the idea that he was a supporter, but it still took me a while to not be awkward and strange around him!”
Cantrell ultimately was invited to do five Peel Sessions, two recorded at Maida Vale and three broadcast live from “Peel Acres”. All of those sessions are represented on this collection. “Being asked to play at Peel Acres was a real honor, and very fun. It was like going to a dinner party out in the country where there happens to be a national radio broadcast taking place. Peel set the tone, it was free spirited and fun loving. Peel’s producers, engineers and staff were all treated as family; we fell right in and enjoyed his wife Sheila’s hospitality. John had such a sense of humor and ease that just naturally conveyed over the radio airwaves. One of my favorite moments in this album is John’s reaction to a Don Gibson song, ‘Legend In My Time,’ we’d played him as a surprise, with Peel recounting how it reminded him of his early days in Texas.
In 2006, after releasing three albums in five years of consistent touring to build her U.K. audience, Cantrell shifted focus to care for her newborn daughter. “I knew when Bella was born that my ability to travel was going to change. Many things in the industry were different – Peel had passed, the music business was going through a major disruption, my personal life was changing. I wasn’t sure there would still be an audience for me in the U.K. when I was ready to return. When we released my Kitty Wells Dresses album, I was so relieved to see the base of people we’d reached from all that hard work in the early 2000s was intact.”
Since the birth of her daughter, Cantrell has released two critically acclaimed albums – 2011’s Kitty Wells Dresses and 2014’s No Way There From Here. With Laura Cantrell At The BBC, she’s celebrating her own early years, concluding “I really treasure those five years of intense travel and engagement with the U.K. audience, and I still feel a debt to the BBC for the platform it gave me to reach that audience and grow as an artist.”
Laura Cantrell performs at Manchester’s Ruby Lounge on Saturday 14 May.