Laura Cantrell - Kitty Wells Dresses: Songs of the Queen of Country Music
Broad minded indie listeners were first exposed to Nashville-born country singer Laura Cantrell via strong recommendations by John Peel - and many found her entirely to their liking. There is a whole back story about Cantrell initially struggling to make an impact back home in the States, but finding more success here due to Peel's championing of her cause and it's no accident that she's currently on a Scottish record label. Of course, Laura is a star back home now, at least in the circles that matter and it's a long time since she had to ask for time off from her corporate banking job to support Elvis Costello on tour. Laura has always been country, but with a modern sensibility.
This new album changes all that, and might therefore initially take existing fans by complete surprise. It is dedicated entirely to the singer Kitty Wells and if you have very wide tastes indeed, you might possibly have heard Wells' song 'It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels', her most notable hit, dating all the way back to 1952. That aside, she is now largely unknown and the memory dusty. This is sad when you come to realise that in her day she was a genuine superstar, pushing doors open as a female country performer and is widely acknowledged as paving the way and making it all possible for Dolly, Tammy, Patsy and the rest.
This whole enterprise was commissioned by the Country Music Hall Of Fame to redress such forgetful history and I'm guessing it was quite an honour for Laura to be asked to do it. Apart from the first track, a new song penned by Cantrell and Amy Allison as an homage to Wells, every track on here is a cover of Kitty's own canon, originally recorded by Wells in the 50s and 60s. No matter how lovely or worthy a cause, it still has to stand up, and that is the question of the day. That title track is the best fit for those who have listened to Laura before. She has a very pure voice, great at carrying clarion melody lines. Despite the use of traditional pedal steel and all the rest, this song is modern in sentiment, looking back affectionately at Kitty's impact "from Mobil to Memphis, every girl's dream".
As we get into the rest of the album, the original Kitty songs, the fiddles and bottlenecks kick in with a vengeance - pure twang. The most notable facet though is found in the lyrics. Written in a very different age, most tell the story of the wronged little woman. I found myself bemused by the sadness of successive tracks, building like a wave "...the way that you two-timed me"; "one by one, we broke each vow we made"; "I can't tell my heart that you are no good", and best of all ..."I gave my wedding dress away" (this one about your sister stealing your beau). It is a very charming view of a world, but can in 2011 feel set in aspic. In between, there are odd surprising hints of modernity in two tracks 'Honky Tonk Angels' and 'I Don't Claim To Be An Angel', both of which have what must have been at the time gritty kitchen sink realism, with admissions that women could be less than pure.
So, back to the question of the day. Is it something that will have more than scholarly historic appeal? Of course the Bob Harris audience is already there. For the rest of us, providing that you know what you are getting into, the answer is a qualified but definite 'yes' particularly if you have ever enjoyed, say, Billy Bragg setting Woody Guthrie to music. It's a great take and introduction to some real history, and it is made the more beautiful by Laura's voice and the craft of the country musicians who play with her. Just don't forget your check shirt and cowboy boots.