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Laura Cantrell Kitty Wells Dresses: Songs of the Queen of Country Music Review

Album. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

New Yorker returns to Nashville for joyous tribute to a country pioneer.

Ninian Dunnett 2011

Laura Cantrell is no purist. The sweet-voiced singer has covered New Order and even dabbled in electronica. But the history that underlies this wonderful collection is the thing that draws her talents most keenly.

It was history, after all, that made Cantrell such an exhilarating novelty when a tenacious Scottish label unearthed her in 2000. Her debut release was plain startling in the era of Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks: a quietly wholehearted homage to the simpler virtues of 40s and 50s country music, executed with devotion and grace.

Later albums found Cantrell stretching out into poppier byways. But she has always been a historian as well as a musician and DJ, enthusing radio listeners with the exploits of long-gone musical heroines. And in Kitty Wells – the first female country star to top the chart, and the first to release a long-playing record – she has the perfect model for her own well-mannered radicalism.

Wells topped the charts in 1952 with It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels (an answer song to Hank Thomson’s chauvinistic Wild Side of Life), and she was known for attitude as well as tunes. Cantrell’s tribute was recorded in the Nashville of her own youth, emulating the wistful, pragmatic persona Wells perfected on once-shocking songs like I Don’t Claim to Be an Angel and I Gave My Wedding Dress Away.

With sidemen including Chris Scruggs and Chuck Mead from BR549 and Paul Niehaus of Calexico, the 10-song album emulates 50s production values. It takes great confidence, this; just a single voice keening over ding-dong bass, pit-a-pat drums and elegant pedal steel, and Cantrell carries it off with heart as well as charm. There’s a quiet authority in the no-frills purity of her lovely voice that echoes the mix of strength and vulnerability projected by Wells.

This is a connoisseur’s collection, steering clear of hits that have since veered into kitsch (like Release Me or I Can’t Stop Loving You) to favour a handful of classics, some less-known treasures, and the title song – a charmer of Cantrell’s own that sits snugly among the marvellous covers.

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