If you just happen to be an aspiring country musician trying to find your way along the road to stardom, do yourself a favor: Don’t ask Laura Cantrell for directions. That’s not a reflection of her merit as an artist but a fair warning that hers has been the road less traveled. Growing up in the country-music Mecca, Nashville, Tennessee, Cantrell had the scene’s beating heart right at her doorstep. Instead of capitalizing on this, she moved to New York to study American literature at Columbia University. A college-radio gig eventually turned into a quasi-famous radio program on a New Jersey nonprofit station spinning old country tunes. Oh, and to pay the bills, she was a vice president of a Wall Street bank, managing the equity-research department.
Strange as Cantrell’s journey was, there’s no denying the success she ultimately found. Her first two solo albums, Not the Tremblin’ Kind (2000) and When the Roses Bloom Again (2002) won raves from both sides of the Atlantic. Legendary British deejay John Peel called Cantrell’s debut “my favourite record of the past ten years and possibly my life.”
With Humming by the Flowered Vine, her Matador debut, Cantrell doesn’t change her formula for success: a collection of intimate songs with simple arrangements revolving around Cantrell’s pleasing vocals. The album, like its predecessors, is made up of original compositions and lovingly chosen covers. While hardly innovative, it’s hard to fault Cantrell’s efforts when she has such a firm grasp on what makes a great country record.
Yes, a country record. Note the lack of a modifier. Paying proper respect to the genre’s roots, Cantrell’s throwback sound is refreshing when juxtaposed with much of the current alt.country scene, often fixated with making sure it rocks enough. Cantrell doesn’t rock; she exudes Southern charm. Touching on themes of love, longing and heartache, she channels her history as a country girl in the big city to great effect.
If pressed to find fault with the album, it would lie in Cantrell failing to focus more on her own songwriting. While Cantrell’s inspired covers of obscure country gems lend the album a certain charm, this doesn’t negate the fact that the album’s highlights consist almost entirely of her original work. “Khaki & Corduroy” recounts Cantrell’s early days in New York City and finds her yearning for the down-home comforts and familiar faces she left behind in Nashville. Her magnum opus, “Bees,” a tribute to a friend whose last days were marred by failing health, is graceful and dignified in recounting the yearnings of an individual at the end of his life. When Cantrell sings, “I miss the bees/ I miss the honey/ I miss them humming/ By the flowered vine/ My time is short now/ I feel it coming/ I see you darling/ On the other side,” it will make your heart stop.
She took the scenic route to her current destination, but Cantrell found success on her own terms. Humming by the Flowered Vine is a testament to her love of country music, and it breathes new life into this oft-bastardized genre.