Laura Cantrell Pays Tribute to a Country Music Legend

Singer-songwriter Laura Cantrell was invited about two years ago by the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville to do a concert as part of an exhibit on Kitty Wells. For Cantrell -- who is originally from Nashville and now resides in New York -- the event inspired her to reacquaint herself with the songs of the legendary country music singer.

“It was really cool to go back to some of that repertoire that I hadn’t really played publicly in a long time,” Cantrell tells Nonstop Sound, "and re-familiarize myself with it. I felt kind of reconnected to it, which was really great.”

Those familiar with Cantrell knows that she is an ambassador of traditional country music both as a singer and the host of the WFMU radio program “The Radio Thrift Shop.” After a six-year hiatus since her last full-length album, Cantrell returns with a new record, “Kitty Wells Dresses: Songs of the Queen of Country Music.” It contains nine of Wells’ songs such as “One By One,” “I Gave My Wedding Dress Away,” and her most popular hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”

Wells holds a distinct place in country music as she was the first female artist to reach No. 1 on the country charts and sell one million copies of “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” in 1952. She was a hit-maker from the '50s to the ‘70s; a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976; and a recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991. But Wells is perhaps not as well-known compared to the more popular female country artists that came after her, such as Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.

“I feel like Kitty’s kind of thought as an elder in the industry and given her due as a pioneer,” says Cantrell, “but people are not as familiar with her actual music and body of work as they should be. Even though I was kind of rediscovering the music myself, it was irritating me. Subsequently I was like, ‘Why don’t we make a recording?’ and it kind of all evolved out of that urge.”

For the song selection on “Kitty Wells Dresses,” Cantrell acknowledges: “You can’t get around some of the big hits, so you had to have "It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels." I really wanted to have some of the other songs that she was famous for in the ‘50s that are from that female point of view. It’s a little bit surprising because they’re sort of candid about relationships, but in a ’50s language. I figured this was a good kind of sample that represented both me and her well enough.”

Cantrell describes "It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” as a catchy love song that offered a woman’s point of view that was not really expressed before. “What was fascinating to me was that Kitty and her team realized that there was this under-served portion of their listenership that would respond to more songs that expressed that female point of view and domestic matters in country music. All of those women in the early ‘60s that we think of as the iconic superstars of country music -- like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton -- they all benefited from that initial beachhead that Kitty Wells established.”

The new album features a new song, "Kitty Wells Dresses," that Cantrell co-wrote with Amy Allison for that event at the Country Music Hall of Fame. The story behind that track was the frilly gingham country music-looking dresses that Cantrell looked out for when she was younger.

“I always called them Kitty Wells dresses,” she explains, “because they reminded me of all the stage outfits that she had in the early ‘50s. And those dresses were sort of a uniform for the women of country music at a certain time when they had to be presentable to public audiences both on the radio and then in person in a very sort of safe way. You could use those clothes as a metaphor for how we underestimate these people around us who are powerful and important. But because they look sweet and demure, we kind of tend to forget their story a little bit.”

Cantrell has met Wells, who is 91 years old, as well as her husband Johnny Wright. She visited them last summer and left a copy of the record. “Johnnie Wright started singing me songs because some of them were ones that he’d written,” says Cantrell. “So it was a very sweet moment for me to feel like they were pleased with my choices and also remembering their own music. They created it, so they know it’s a very special thing.”

Having performed in the UK recently, the singer will be doing a few shows starting with an appearance at Hill Country on West 26th Street this Thursday. Cantrell acknowledges that she hasn’t been traveling as much since the birth of her daughter a couple of years ago, so she sees this new record as an opportunity to reestablish her connection with her audience.

“I got a pile of songs ready to go for a new record,” she says. “This will hopefully kind of pave the way…[and] help us get to where when that’s completed, we kind of strengthen up with that relationship with our fans again. We’ll see how the schedule goes, but I’m hoping that we can be back at it this time next year with a new album of my own music.”

Laura Cantrell will be performing Thursday at Hill Country, 30 W. 26th St., 10 p.m. Tickets are $15. For information on Cantrell, visit her Web site

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