Laura Cantrell

The singer-songwriter and WFMU vet on women in country music

Country music is all about backstory, the journey from small-town beginnings to the bright lights of Nashville—or, if you’re Taylor Swift, from junior high to high school. Laura Cantrell’s story doesn’t fit that mold, but it’s as unlikely in its own way. The daughter of a Nashville judge and a prominent lawyer, she moved to New York to study at Columbia and wound up with a job in finance and a radio show on legendary freeform station WFMU.

After years playing side gigs in the city’s roots music scene, she emerged as a singer-songwriter with a voice distinctive enough to draw the attention of fellow record-spinner John Peel and eventually ended up on the stage of the Grand Old Opry. Raising a 5-year-old daughter has slowed the pace of releases somewhat, but her new album, Kitty Wells Dresses, shows she hasn’t lost a step.

As you might glean from the title track, the album is devoted to songs made famous by Kitty Wells, also known as the Queen Of Country Music, a humble trailblazer who laid the groundwork for the Patsys and Lorettas that followed. Continuing on that theme, The A.V. Club met Cantrell at a diner in midtown Manhattan to discuss songs by women before her show tonight at Tin Angel.

Laura Cantrell, “Kitty Wells Dresses” (from 2011’s Kitty Wells Dresses)

Laura Cantrell: I used to do a radio show on WFMU, and I’d go in the record library and notice every year there’d be a new Patsy Cline CD, or several nice box-set-type things of Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette. Patsy, everything she ever breathed on a microphone is out at this point. Kitty Wells made 50-plus albums, and there are maybe two or three comps. Usually they’ll have a few of the core songs from the ’50s and then some other weird, random stuff that’s, like, “Why would anyone put that on a comp?” They just don’t seem well thought through and representative of the eras of her music.

This is just a pet peeve of mine that I carried around for a long time. If you go to iTunes and look, there’s tons of Kitty Wells stuff you can buy, and every one repeats three or four tracks. I just felt the percentage of what’s available versus what she did is too random. I suppose I could go to—what was she on? Decca? That would be BMG. It’s all Sony at this point, isn’t it?—I could pitch them to do a better comp.

I guess I’d ranted about this enough that when the [Country Music] Hall Of Fame was looking for artists to do a concert in conjunction with their [Kitty Wells] exhibit, my name came up. I wrote [“Kitty Wells Dresses”] for that show [in 2008], and it got me back in touch with this material, a lot of which I had played when I was starting out, just playing songs at college. The idea of making that set of songs a record wasn’t in the forefront, but I’m trying to get better about when you have an idea, exploiting it to the fullest.

Specifically celebrating Kitty was the intent, because she’s such a demure, down-to-earth person. She’s so uncontroversial in her presentation of herself. She’s this Southern lady, she’s very unpretentious; she doesn’t have any of the trappings of a star or an icon about her. I think that aspect of her—her manner, and the way she and her family ran their business in a very old-school, above-board kind of way, they didn’t have drama in their public presentation of their art—that was really good. It doesn’t lend itself to the myth-making machine that exists around some other artists.

The A.V. Club: You couldn’t make Coal Miner’s Daughter about Kitty Wells.

LC: No, you couldn’t. I think in some ways, she gets discounted as a pioneer because her struggles weren’t apparent. I’m sure it was hard as hell to raise three kids on the road, back and forth from Nashville, in that era. That must have been a very difficult choice to make, but she didn’t have it played out in public, like, say, Tammy Wynette did. There’s no movie-of-the-week storyline with Kitty. I think her husband’s contribution gets even more absorbed into, “Oh, they were the first. Done. Move on. Oh, Patsy Cline! Let’s talk about her.”

Some of it’s natural, because of the generation difference, but then you realize that Kitty Wells made records through the ’80s, and she toured until she was 80. She has this insane contribution that she made, where none of those later artists would have had as easy a time of it if she hadn’t fully dispelled the notion that a woman artist could draw in concert, get coins in the jukebox, and sell records. The myth that that couldn’t happen was totally dispelled by the time Patsy Cline came along. I’m not saying it was easy for any of those women, but that initial resistance of “the machine works this way” was disproved.

AVC: What led you to focus specifically on the way she dressed?

LC: You think about the classic girl singer, which is what she was before she became a star, just the featured singer in her husband’s band—the women in that role, especially women who participated in what they called “barn dance radio,” these were family shows. Nothing sexy. Nothing alluring, or adult, even. It was this hyper-feminized, ruffly sweetness.

In the late ’20s and early ’30s, when these shows started, there were dress codes for women. It was sort of a uniform. It made everyone the same, and you couldn’t really tell the strength of the woman from the appearance. And here you have these amazing women—not just Kitty, but Martha Carson and Mother Maybelle [Carter], the Carter Sister. It was like a sorority of women who had to don the apparel of the structure in which they worked. We think of this now as not that interesting, and if you look at it at face value, you go, “Oh yeah, the gingham and polka dots—whatever.” But you’re really missing the point. These were great artists who made a huge contribution, and this uninteresting-to-us outfit was the garment of these important ladies.

Kitty Wells, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”

AVC: It’s a really nervy song, a rebuttal to Hank Thompson’s hit, “The Wild Side Of Life.”

LC: And very specific and pointed. “As I listen to the words you are saying...”—she’s almost going line-by-line. It’s something we don’t do now. There was a period where answer songs were kind of a fad, but this would be the most potent example, and the one that had the most cultural impact. It became this sort of rallying cry for women to go, “Wait a second—don’t blame us for these social ills, or the unhappiness of failed marriages. It’s not our fault.”

Kitty Wells was kind of the perfect person to do it, because she seems so innocuous; but in her singing style, she’s very emotional, in a not-showy way. She’s got this vibrato that adds a certain element of emotion to it, so it’s very powerful, in that song and many others. You can imagine how it wasn’t normal for a woman to stand up and speak out in song in the honky-tonk world; it would have seemed like a very frank, unusual thing.

AVC: It was fairly controversial at the time, wasn’t it?

LC: It was briefly banned from the Grand Old Opry. I don’t think she could sing it on the national portion for a while. I don’t know if they thought their sponsors wouldn’t be into promoting unrest among the ladyfolk. Obviously, it became such a big hit, it wasn’t banned for long.

AVC: Did the song come to you with that history intact? Did you know what you were hearing when you first heard it?

LC: Here’s the thing: I was familiar with Kitty as one of my dad’s favorite singers when I was young, so I knew that song and I knew a lot of her other songs. But when I was in college, I worked at the Country Music Hall Of Fame as a tour guide, so you have to learn little factoids. That was when I digested what an important artist she was, and also what the time frame was. That was the ’50s; here’s Hank Williams, Hank Thompson, Lefty Frizzell, all these rising stars, and then all of a sudden there’s Kitty Wells. For the next 10 years, she was the only woman who could be as dominant and as successful sales-wise. She recorded with Owen Bradley from Decca, also Patsy Cline’s producer, architect of the Nashville sound, also one of the people responsible for the shift in the way they recorded in Nashville, and I remember trying to make sense of that, too. She started out being this straight honky-tonk artist, and then eventually her stuff gets kind of lush, and as countrypolitan as anyone else. So she was this person I followed as I was making sense of the greater trends in what happened.

Martha Carson, “Satisfied”

AVC: Martha Carson’s one of the people you name-check in “Kitty Wells Dresses,” along with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. “Satisfied” seems to be the song that comes up most often.

LC: That’s the big one. She had a duo with her husband before they divorced, and then she went on as a solo artist; they did a lot of awesome gospel stuff that’s out on Dust-to-Digital; it’s probably in one of those giant gospel box sets. She was just a really great singer. She only really had that one hit, but around the Opry, she was known as this electrifying performer, and supposedly taught Elvis how to do something or another. She was very well known in Nashville.

The reason that I mention her, actually, is that when I asked Kitty’s daughter about her stage clothes—about 15 years ago, before she retired—she said there was this one seamstress in Nashville who supplied all the women at the Opry. So Martha Carson, Mother Maybelle, and the Carter Sisters were all customers of this lady, which is another reason I mention them particularly. I knew that they specifically all wore the same clothes, and in the same setting, where it was, “Hey! The girls are on for one song!”

Dolly Parton, “Coat of Many Colors”

It just works so perfectly. You’ve got the Bible story in there; it all comes across. Her family was religious, and there’s the sentiment, but it’s grounded in the reality of the world. It could really be a short story, a piece of writing you don’t come across very often. You can’t manufacture that. It’s got to happen organically. Those people who can do it, it’s a pretty amazing result. It’s kind of heart-rending and it makes you feel good at the same time.

Loretta Lynn, “Rated X”

I love “Rated X.” It’s definitely aware of gender bias and a pretty strong statement of “that’s not right.” She’d been so successful for the couple of years before that it made it easier to go down that road. It wasn’t her first thing. It was like, “Now we expect Loretta to be a little controversial, push the envelope.”

Wanda Jackson, “The Box It Came In”

AVC: Another really neatly written song. The singer’s husband leaves her and takes everything but the box her wedding dress came in. Later, it’s implied she buries him in it. As far as dresses go, there’s also the story about how Ernest Tubb barred her from taking the stage for the first time at the Grand Old Opry because of the fringed jacket she was wearing.

LC: Wanda’s another one who had to subvert the uniform. Even though she was that younger generation that could get away with more, you still get a very palpable sense from her that it was important to be somewhat conventional. Anything more you had to slip in. You couldn’t just dress totally how you wanted to.

There was a style that she really became associated with, that sort of fringed sheath dress. It’s not really that revealing, but when she starts moving, it makes you aware of every curve that she’s got. If you’ve ever seen Kitty Wells play, she’s not moving at all. So it’s this whole next evolution of what women can do on stage.

Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard, “Ramblin’ Woman”

AVC: Do Hazel and Alice fit the lineage you’re talking about? They’re more in the vein of Appalachian mountain music.

LA: It’s funny, because I think the way the industry thinks of them, they’re different. Certainly they had different milieux they performed in. I would make an argument that all these people should be in the Hall Of Fame. Long-term, it’s all going to be folk music. And what Hazel and Alice did was as influential, maybe to a different group of people or a different generation. If you’re interested in the music overall, they fit. They’re more traditional than many of their contemporaries, but they also blended that with being women running their own band in the 1960s, and they were contributing this material that was from a contemporary country woman’s point of view. It was political, it was heartbreaking. It was everything.