“My favorite record of the last ten years and possibly of my life is an LP by a New York woman born in Nashville called Laura Cantrell. It’s country, and I don’t know why I like it, but it has the same sort of effect on me as Roy Orbison had in the ‘60s, and you think, ‘Instead of yet another review of Eminem, or whoever, why doesn’t somebody review Laura Cantrell?’” —John Peel
Right, then. Since a new Eminem album had recently topped the charts, I am more than happy to take marching orders from the legendary BBC disc jockey whose “Peel Sessions” have had their own effect on music fans for over thirty years. The thing is, Peel was speaking in 2000, and I ran across the quote only earlier this year—and I’d never heard of Laura Cantrell. Peel’s testimony appears near the end of Paul Gorman’s 300-pager on the golden age of rock journalism, In Their Own Write (Sanctuary 2001). That probably the most influential disc jockey in history, who championed everything from psych-folk to reggae and owned more records by The Fall than by anyone else, was so moved by “a New York woman born in Nashville” startled me. The favorite record of his life? What had I missed?
This sense of discovery, of running down a missing piece to one’s musical mosaic, was what drew me to rock writing in the first place. The writers I read, most of whom appear in Paul Gorman’s history, took the music personally while still enjoying the responsibility of critical thinking. They could lay their lives and professional careers on the line over a particular album or single while still displaying a huge debt to the craft of writing itself. Their loyalties were spread among many interesting locations, such as philosophy, art, celebrity, social criticism, cultural movements, literature, politics, the history of Western civilization, and, yes, record company largesse. So while the greatest records of any given year may have shown up in their post office box, the rest of us needed to go out and get them; and the best writers made it seem as though they were right there with you, standing in line at the record store, flipping through the latest issue of Rolling Stone. They seemed invested, not entitled.
“The music papers no longer dare to take a chance of delighting their audience,” said Peel, “by which I mean you have to be able to take them by surprise. What I want is for people to be sitting at home or driving or whatever and to think, ‘What the [hell] is that?’” Surprise is not the same thing as shock or provocation. Artists covered in today’s magazines—Lady Gaga, say, or Lil Wayne—trade on spectacle, and their reporters are content to serve it straight, with no insight added. Plus, I know many audience members who do not want to be surprised. For every one who uses Pandora or some similar system to hook them up with new music based on their current likes, there are a dozen who can’t be bothered by a country record from ten years ago that changed somebody’s life. There are even those who live in major cities with hip, happening radio stations that could surprise them every five minutes, and still they shuffle through the same old iPod items at home or driving.
And the Internet is a spoiler. If I found myself curious about Laura Cantrell, I could have flipped open the MacBook, started typing L-A-U-R-A-C and before I got to the end of her name I’d have twenty websites to choose from. I then could have read the Wikipedia entry, perused the online “reviews” (“dude this like totally breaks yr heart, its awesome”), ordered the CD from Amazon, and considered myself in the know. Attention deficit: about five minutes.
But that’s no fun. So, when my van needed to be left for a brake job in California, I took the Metro from Long Beach to LA, caught the Red Line to Hollywood and Vine, and walked a few blocks to the Wittenberg castle of used record stores, Amoeba Music, all of which took an hour and a half. After shopping around some, bumping my head twice going through the “Jazz Clearance” bins below the regular stock, asking a nice fellow in the country CDs about Cantrell, and following his directions to the folk section (as well as to Peel’s autobiography, Margrave of the Marshes), I found the recording in question, Not The Tremblin’ Kind, for $3.99. I added this to my basket and two hours later returned to daylight having spent thirty dollars on one book, ten CDs, and a copy of the LA Times. Not bad.
The aging lions of rock journalism note in Gorman’s closing pages that much of the best music writing appears in the major daily papers. Marc Weingarten comments specifically on three critics in the New York Times. “As someone who has newspaper experience, I know how hard it is to file something that’s trenchant, cogent and smart on deadline.” The influence of rock’s early writers on me was such that I was striving for trenchancy and cogency before I knew what they were. Today, with words about music found all over the Internet (some of which can be considered writing), the indication is that readers’ needs are being met. Listeners hungry for trenchancy and cogency have a place to go, but these qualities are not highly valued. Instead, one finds plenty of snarky sorts with more attitude than talent. One reason the dailies have the best music coverage is that they have retained people with a certain kind of mind, men and women who love journalism as much as they love popular music and can be smart on deadline.
Throughout In Their Own Write, when writers praise other writers it is invariably for their “humanity” or a “moral sense” that enabled them to keenly cut through the hype and defend—or destroy—someone’s art on the basis of whether or not it was good for you. Such concern for listeners’ mental and spiritual well-being seems to fall to Christian and other religious writers now. There is no greater sin than to be judged “judgmental,” and it is a rare writer indeed who will go against the prevailing relativism to say, “It’s not all good.”
Cantrell has a look of discerning intelligence on her unsmiling face, and she exudes a thoughtful remove from front and back of the jewel case. I anticipate music of highly refined emotions that is nevertheless a little ragged around the edges, characteristics found often in those who spend their lives around records. Another reason In Their Own Write gives for the decline of general music magazines (as opposed to the specialized titles that advertisers prefer to keep afloat) is the ubiquity of pop coverage. Once rock became just another element of celebrity culture, its “news” started popping up everywhere. There is also a been-there-heard-that weariness that many writers assume is premature, though it may not be unearned.
At the Long Beach Public Library I look up Cantrell in the All Music Guide. It turns out that she is quite well known. She has toured with Joan Baez, Ralph Stanley, and Elvis Costello; played Conan O’Brien, the Grand Ole Opry, and recorded five Peel Sessions; hosted her own radio show on WFMU in New Jersey from 1993 to 2005; and in 2008 released her fourth work, the travel-themed EP Trains and Boats and Planes (yes, the old Bacharach-David song) and contributed a cover of New Order’s “Love Vigilantes” to the soundtrack album Body of War in support of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Oops. Well, like I said, the greatest records of any given year don’t just show up in my post office box.
Nor will they for anyone else much longer. The fact that Cantrell’s travel-song collection is available exclusively as a download is itself an admission that most “record buyers” don’t buy records anymore. It is a song-by-song, digital-format world, one more reason why a music press as “vital and vibrant” as that of the 1970s will not happen again. In his forward to In Their Own Write, Charles Shaar Murray sees that heyday arising from “a variety of historical accidents, large and small,” but posits two for readers’ consideration: the post-WWII invention of the teenager as a social and economic entity (something that now has ascended to dominance), and the fact that “no one knew anything.” In the world that existed before MTV (which has dropped the “Music Television” from its logo), “if a company wanted to break an act, they had no option but to come to us, and we were left alone to do the job however we saw fit.” When I hoped to be the next Cameron Crowe back in 1975, it was this idea of having a job to do that inspired me. Whether it was Phonograph Record, Creem, or Murray’s New Musical Express in England, music magazines put writers to work, even if they were half crocked much of the time.
So are many of the characters on Not The Tremblin’ Kind, stumbling through honky-tonks, backstage areas, strangers’ bedrooms and “churches off the interstate.” Some of these interesting folks come from Cantrell’s own imagination, others from the work of contemporary songwriters. Their stories are told in a clear Nashvillean alto so plaintive that it can make one uncomfortable. What I heard was not the mystery or mastery of a voice like Orbison’s, but I did hear someone I knew. Bonnie Simmons and Dirk Richardson, two music writers, surprise their listeners every week on KPFA in Berkeley, and they played this album. So there had indeed been moments of what-the-hell-is-that at home and driving; some of these songs had crept through my evening hours and left their impression; that plain, shaky voice did reside in my musical memory—oh, that’s Laura Cantrell. Perhaps what Peel heard was an effortless earnestness that UK country cousins like the Mekons could only approximate. Me, I like my jangly country-pop with a bit more zang (zing plus twang). Not The Tremblin’ Kind sounds like home, but there’s nothing here that Jill Olson doesn’t do better.
Don’t know Jill Olson? Well, there’s one for you to do the legwork on.
J. D. Buhl teaches Eighth Grade English and literature at the Casady School in Oklahoma City. He also has been known to sing country-pop with zang.