Laura Cantrell, Banking on a Music Career Laura Cantrell is a deejay specializing in hard-to-find recordings and a singer whose third CD is Humming by the Flowered Vine. She tells Liane Hansen about life as a performer, her role as a musical historian, and her decision to give up her day job on Wall Street.
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Laura Cantrell, Banking on a Music Career

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Laura Cantrell, Banking on a Music Career

Laura Cantrell, Banking on a Music Career

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(Soundbite of "The Radio Thrift Shop")

Ms. LAURA CANTRELL (Host, "The Radio Thrift Shop"): Well, hello, there, folks. Welcome to "The Radio Thrift Shop" here on WFMU, East Orange, and WXHD, Mt. Hope. My name is Laura Cantrell. I'm the proprietress of this radio establishment.


Just about every Saturday afternoon for the past dozen years, listeners to WFMU in Jersey City, New Jersey, have tuned in to hear rare vinyl tracks on a show called "The Radio Thrift Shop."

(Soundbite of "The Radio Thrift Shop")

Ms. CANTRELL: ...this afternoon. We have an airwave archive today from the great Hank Snow, "Country Style, USA" program that'll come...

HANSEN: The WFMU Web site says, `Host Laura Cantrell scours the bargain bins, church bazaars and yard sales for those forgotten records of all RPM, often scratchy, swingy and stringy.' Well, you know, that's just the half of it. As it turns out, Laura Cantrell has been long leading a double life.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. CANTRELL: (Singing) I hear voices speak of you. I hear voices echoing.

HANSEN: Laura Cantrell is also a singer, now with three recordings to her name. The latest is "Humming by the Flowered Vine" on Matador Records, and Laura Cantrell joins us from our New York bureau.

Laura, it's really nice to meet you.

Ms. CANTRELL: Thank you. Likewise.

HANSEN: You know, actually, we should say you've been living a triple life. Until recently you were a Wall Street banker, but then decided to go full-time into music?

Ms. CANTRELL: Well, I actually worked on Wall Street for about 11 years. I was not a banker but I ended up being a kind of middle manager-administrator, but always was a job that I had to support my radio habit and my music habit and really just used my vacation time to do the traveling involved with touring to promote those albums. So I kind of had stretched the calendar to the very margins to do all of those things at once.

HANSEN: I don't think many people can say they used their vacation days to open for Elvis Costello.

Ms. CANTRELL: That was a great opportunity, and it was, I think, the turning point for me, when I got that chance to open for Elvis. We did six weeks on the road with him, and I had to go in and ask for a leave of absence from my job, and it was the first time I really had a significant disruption in my working life from my music career and it made me realize that if I was going to get some more of those good opportunities and take them seriously, that I would have to, you know, really have my time free to focus and work on my music, and so I took the plunge.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. CANTRELL: (Singing) Used to take the subway to 42nd and Broadway, check my downtown mailbox, check my downtown mailbox. Always felt much better when I got me a letter in my downtown mailbox, in my downtown mailbox. Send me a letter, send it to me when you want to reach me.

HANSEN: Well, let's talk about the new record, in particular, "Humming by the Flowered Vine." There are old songs here, there are new songs here, there are covers, there are originals. How much were these songs actually inspired by your work on the radio?

Ms. CANTRELL: Well, I felt like presenting a show on the radio at WFMU. It's a very creative place and it's a very music-intensive place. And it's sort of a twin impulse, really, to my desire to be a performer and I've certainly hatched many great ideas for songs to cover while hanging around the station and hearing music that's coming in to the station. So I would say there's a fair amount of inspiration from that. I am a big fan of old music. I really love kind of presenting music in a bit of a historical context on my radio show. When I started writing my own songs, I found that some of that interest carried over into songwriting, kind of paying tribute to some of those artists in country music that I felt were underrated or a little bit forgotten has been something that's a good topic for me personally to write about and satisfying to kind of make those story songs that kind of remind people of some of these forgotten figures of country music.

(Soundbite of "Poor Ellen Smith")

Ms. CANTRELL: (Singing) Come, all you people, my story to hear, what happened to me, June of last year. Oh, it's poor Ellen Smith, Lord, how was she found, shot through the heart, lying dead on the ground.

HANSEN: Nashville and your Tennessee, roots, though, are prominent on this CD. There is actually a family connection with a song. It's a traditional one. It's called "Poor Ellen Smith." Is this some kind of--what's the genealogy? How's it relate to your family?

Ms. CANTRELL: Well, that song is a traditional song. It's an American kind of murder ballad that was based on an actual crime that happened in North Carolina at the turn of the century.

(Soundbite of "Poor Ellen Smith")

Ms. CANTRELL: (Singing) Ellen lies sleeping with her hand on her breast. The bloodhounds and the sheriff won't give me no rest. They...

The version of the song that I recorded is based on a collector who was from my family. Her name was Ethel Park Richardson. And she's my great-great-grandfather's sister from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and a schoolteacher by trade, but as an avocation, I guess, a folklore collector. She was really interested in songs and stories and the way people talked in the mountains around Chattanooga. And she collected, based on her own travels, several songs and published a book in the 1920s called "American Mountain Songs." And I thought that it would be worth going back to her book to find a version of a song that we could do...


Ms. CANTRELL: ...for the album.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of "The Radio Thrift Shop")

Ms. CANTRELL: our first set of music, it was in honor of our guests here in the program today. We had all songs about Rose. Did you notice this, Mom?

Unidentified Woman: I sure did. I loved them all, too.

HANSEN: You invited your parents and your sister, Julie, onto the radio to chat about music, right?

Ms. CANTRELL: I did. Last summer when my mother turned 60, and they came to New York, we had a little party for her here and I actually decided that it would be an interesting thing to have them on my program at WFMU so we chatted about the sort of family music connections and played some records of all those old songs that Ethel collected.

(Soundbite of "The Radio Thrift Shop")

Unidentified Woman: And they were. They came from Decherd, Tennessee. That's where she is from.

Ms. CANTRELL: Right.

Unidentified Woman: And that's where the family was situated.

Ms. CANTRELL: And that--is that right somehow close to Monteagle Mountain...

Unidentified Woman: It's--it is.

Ms. CANTRELL: Tennessee?

Unidentified Woman: It's at the base of--it's a picturesque town, little small town.

HANSEN: Were they good guests?

Ms. CANTRELL: They were pretty good guests, actually. You know, the--I told them, I said, `You know, those Southern accents will come in handy today so don't try to tone them down. Those people want to hear that on the radio.' I think my mother felt that she was sort of on there for laughs and that I was going to make fun of her and it would be kind of like a family joke. When I actually started to interview her for real, her eyes started to tear up, and she was...


Ms. CANTRELL: ...very touched and I don't think she realized that I had a serious sort of interview in mind but we had a nice time.

(Soundbite of "Nashville")

Ms. CANTRELL: (Singing) I went for a walk in my old downtown to the top of a hill and I turned around. Train yard's not what it used to be. Station's still standing by the factory.

HANSEN: The last track on your CD, this is an original, one of yours, and it's written about your hometown, titled "Nashville." Thinking about your early days there, and growing up and all, do you feel as though you've come a long way?

Ms. CANTRELL: Well, I do, certainly, you know. I didn't ever think when I moved to New York as a student that I would stay here for as long as I've been here and find myself a member of a really great music community here in New York. At the same time, my connections to my family and my hometown and the music tradition, I think all of those things sort of dovetail into feeling a very strong sense of home, as well, so, you know, I think on some days it feels like a long distance, and, on others, it seems just like it was meant to be this way.

HANSEN: Laura Cantrell joined us from our New York bureau. Her new CD, "Humming by the Flowered Vine," is on Matador Records.

Thank you so much and good luck.

Ms. CANTRELL: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: And you can hear full audio cuts from Laura Cantrell's CD on our Web site,



HANSEN: I'm Liane Hansen.

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