09/16/2014 12:28 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2014

Laura Cantrell Finds Her Way Back to Nashville, Naturally

The way she waxes so poetically about her hometown, you'd never guess singer-songwriter Laura Cantrell left Nashville for good almost three decades ago.

"I'm sorry. I'm just prattling on," she quietly said over the phone earlier this month.

Her unnecessary apology came in the middle of a fascinating, nearly five-minute response about proudly growing up in Music City USA and how she first made an indirect connection to the industry as the oldest schoolkid in a carpool driven by a guy whose parents were "Rocky Top" songwriters Felice and Boudleaux Bryant.

The Bryants also wrote hits for the Everly Brothers, and Cantrell had a crush on them at that time. Her driver, Del Bryant, eventually became an executive at BMI, the organization that bills itself as "a global leader in music rights management."

Brushes with celebrity -- whether it was knowing your schoolmate's dad was a studio engineer or drum tech -- weren't uncommon, Cantrell said. She recalled her dad, an aficionado of classic country (Carter Family, Bill Monroe) and classy composers/performers (Hoagy Carmichael) coming home from work and saying, "I ran into Lester Flatt on the street today."

Laughing about being "a kid of the '80s" who "certainly wouldn't have called myself a country music fan as a teenager," Cantrell's tastes leaned more toward Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and the Pretenders, though she wouldn't hesitate to play some Patsy Cline.

She also was accepting enough to wrap her head and arms around the musical heritage nurtured in her town and adored by her parents.

"My mom's generation seemed to be more Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash and stuff like that," Cantrell said. "Just growing up kind of around all that stuff while it was happening a few miles away. There was a little sense of local pride about it, too. You could turn on the Opry and listen to it. You could turn on the Porter Wagoner show and see Dolly singing. Even as kitschy or ... whatever you want to say about it that makes it this mass-produced thing. But you can't look at it in denial, the high level or artistry with somebody like Johnny Cash or Dolly Parton was putting out at that time in that town. So I felt an affinity toward those artists and also wanted to be a part of figuring that out for myself."

That's been an ongoing labor of love, but the naturally gifted Cantrell is on her way there from here. The seasoned and sophisticated performer, who has a Nashville showcase at this week's AmericanaFest (9 p.m. Thursday, City Winery) after releasing another fine album earlier this year, sounds excited to be back playing for the home folks.

"Of course now, we're in kind of the public phase again of having music out," said Cantrell, who co-produced No Way There From Here (Thrift Shop Recordings) with Mark Nevers. "That's gratifying after a long time of feeling like, 'Well, the day's gonna come when you go back out there again.' And people will be like, 'Where were you?' " (laughs)

Hopefully, it'll be like jumping back on the bike and cruising down one of Nashville's many wonderful greenways.

Cantrell doesn't have to worry about spinning her wheels, though she has trouble recalling her first professional appearance in Nashville. The guitarist-pianist, whose debut album Not The Tremblin' Kind, was released in 2000, thinks it was as a "semipro" with Paul Burch in 2000 or 2001 at a dive bar called Springwater, an old Lambchop haunt.

Since then, she's graduated to the Grand Ole Opry and the Ryman Auditorium, performed at two previous Americana Music Association festivals (the Basement in 2008, the Rutledge last year) and sang with such cool collaborators as Elvis Costello and They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh.

Despite spending time with such heady company, Cantrell still seems like a stoked fan while sharing some of her celebrity sightings during recent visits from New York, where she has lived since leaving home for Columbia College in 1985.

"Just walking into the mall, I'd be like, 'Oh, I just saw Tim McGraw and Faith Hill going into the gym.' Same neighborhood," Cantrell said. "On a different trip, I saw Keith Urban going into FedEx. It's like that. It's kind of a surreal place in that way. It makes me appreciate the Robert Altman movie Nashville just for how ... it captured some of the surreal part of that, where it's like, 'Oh, we're just normal folks, artists going over to FedEx, but we're also huge stars known outside this world for great talent.' ... The music world was interesting to me."

It's nice to know that accomplished musicians such as Cantrell can be just as star-struck as us. Without a jaded New York bone in her body, the 1989 college graduate who became a resident of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, kept admiring Nashville from afar while working on the air (WKCR at Columbia, then ABC Radio Network in Manhattan and WFMU in New Jersey, where the Proprietress hosted "Radio Thrift Shop") and developing a music career.

In 1997, she married Jeremy Tepper, a program director at SiriusXM, and their daughter Isabella was born in 2006. Currently living in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, Cantrell kept writing music while raising Bella, but recording and performing took a backseat. The former rider in the carpool became the driver.

"First day of third grade was yesterday," Cantrell said, laughing, "so we're getting through all the landmarks here."

Making such a lifestyle change, Cantrell went on to admit, "I was certainly anxious when I was pregnant that I not have a long break away from playing music. And in some ways exactly what I was concerned about kind of came to pass. ...

"So, yeah, that did cause a kind of a pause, I would say," she continued. "But in other ways, you know, you just ... when you add to your family and go about bringing a little critter up, you have to sort of open yourself in ways that maybe you didn't know how to do before. I think that, to me at least, I can sense that in the music itself and in the songs and the writing. It feels more direct to me than I was sort of able to be before. That, I think, is just all part and parcel of having that much more life experience."

Now she's back with her first collection of original songs since 2005's Humming By The Flowered Vine, her third full-length record that was followed in 2011 by Kitty Wells Dresses: Songs of the Queen of Country Music, an album of primarily covers associated with one of her musical heroes.

With solid arrangements and more varied instrumentation than in her previous works, No Way There From Here is stylistically smooth, smart and comforting, like taking your aural senses on a leisurely, enjoyable stroll during a brisk fall day. Guitarist Mark Spencer (Son Volt), who will be in Cantrell's band Thursday with Amanda Contreras (fiddle) and Mark Winchester (upright bass), is one of several valuable players on the album, which has harmony vocals supplied by Americana fixtures such as Jim Lauderdale and Caitlin Rose.

Co-writers include Amy Allison (the breezy opener "All the Girls Are Complicated," "Can't Wait") and Tracyanne Campbell ("Glass Armour"), Camera Obscura's lead singer whom Cantrell befriended 10 years ago when they met at the 65th birthday party for legendary British DJ (and Cantrell fan) John Peel.

"I kept bugging her to say, 'I want to write with you,' " Cantrell said of Campbell, one of the original members of the Scottish indie pop group. "And then I would chicken out of sending her ... when you live in Scotland and New York, you're gonna have to do it by email. ... Finally, she sent me something and I said, 'All right, well now, I've really got to put my money where my mouth is and finish the song.' So we enjoyed it after I got over being a little bit intimidated.

"I feel like it's a successful collaboration even though it was written in two different parts of the world at different times and under different circumstances. But we kind of managed to hone in on the same feeling."

That friendship led to Cantrell opening for Camera Obscura on tour this summer. With such an unlikely pairing, she initially thought, "We might die a really slow death," but ultimately felt blessed that their fans were open-minded.

"And I feel like we really won them over in some places," Cantrell said. "And in several places I had some of my own fans there (including Chicago and Pittsburgh, major cities she hadn't played since before Bella was born), which was wonderful to see. ... So it was great to be back in some places and feel like, 'Oh, there are people who remember that we did this before.' "

Nashville certainly can't forget its native daughter, especially one who equally embraces its past, present and promising future.

Since her daughter was born, Cantrell has returned for more frequent -- and longer -- visits to see her family in the Nashville area, where her parents, younger sister Julie and many of the remaining 10 aunts and uncles on her mother's side still reside.

If Cantrell didn't already have a handful of jobs (the onetime English major occasionally handles DJ duties at WFMU and WNYC, and has been a contributor to The New York Times and, the sentimental songbird and former guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum would fit right in as spokesman for the Nashville Chamber of Commerce.

Marveling at the changes over the past five years, she said, "In some ways I look around Nashville and I feel like I'm in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, looking around the same way where all this development happened really quickly. And some of the more urban areas that were empty or more industrial, now they've been made into shopping, eating, recreating spaces and living spaces.

"It just feels in some ways like energetically a new place to me. And that's very exciting. You hope while that's happening, that somebody's also got their eye on preserving the old places that are part of how it became Music City USA. It's wonderful to see the Ryman be a thriving complex. When I graduated from Columbia and I did come home (laughs) for a few weeks before I went back up to New York to try and find a job, one day, just by myself, I wandered into the Ryman, and took the tour. It cost $2, the place was shut up tighter than anything.

"About three people walked in with me. It was just completely dead. Nothing had been renovated since they closed it up in the '70s to move everything out to Opryland. ... It was actually not a grand room but you could tell the importance of the room and it had this vibe of like ... something had been nurtured there that was really so palpable but it seemed completely abandoned or ... like the town didn't know what to do with the legacy of it or the old building. So it's been really wonderful to see Nashville kind of come around to the importance of preserving those places."

Though branded in some circles as a country singer, Cantrell covers the gamut of sounds, influences and genres, much like the organization that's celebrating its 13th annual music festival this week.

Nashville's all-Americana girl should feel right at home.


In a subsequent email, the artist shares her thoughts about Nashville and more. Her edited responses:

For a music fan visiting Nashville for the first time, what should be at the top of their to-do list?

"I would soak in the Ryman and some of lower Broad, Ernest Tubb Record Shop, Hatch Show Print, then go over and get schooled at the (Country Music) Hall of Fame.  You should always check what is on at the Opry and the Station Inn.  If people have wheels, I tell them to see if Chris Scruggs is doing his Sunday night gig at the Stone Fox in West Nashville."

What's still on your wish list of things to do in Nashville?

"I haven't been to the Schermerhorn (Symphony Center) yet!"

What's your favorite place to play in Nashville? 

"I've played twice at the Ryman and twice (with the Opry once and on Elvis Costello's tour in 2002) at the Grand Ole Opryhouse on the Opry.  Both are so significant historically AND amazing performance spaces with great acoustics.  It is really significant for me personally to connect with all that history and enjoy those places."

What are some of your favorite Nashville haunts (restaurants, coffee shops, department stores, places to hang out)?

"I like Arnold's, a classic meat and three, The Turnip Truck natural grocery (for when you're recovering from Arnold's), the old school vibe of the Nashville Arcade, Dunn Brothers, Frothy Monkey or Bongo Java coffee shops, Margot Cafe in East Nashville, and don't forget to try the Kitty Wells pizza at Two Boots by Vanderbilt. I also have to drop in at Grimey"s on 8th Avenue and the Great Escape record shop out on Charlotte."

What's next for Laura Cantrell? Do you have more touring plans

"I do. On the back end of AMA, I'm doing a little swing from St. Louis down to Atlanta. Playing some Southern stuff. We're gonna be in Asheville (N.C.) and Athens, Ga., where I have some people down there. That's the next little bit of playing. And we'll have some East Coast things this winter. I'm hoping to make to the West Coast early next year."

Publicity photos courtesy of Sacks & Co. See previous profiles from this series of Parker Millsap (Part 1) and Elizabeth Cook (Part 2).