Laura Cantrell at the Coolidge Auditorium, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Thursday 6 May 2004
At the Coolidge Auditorium on Thursday night, country singer Laura Cantrell divulged that she'd spent the day at the Library of Congress doing research. She searched the stacks for a book of songs written by her distant relative Ethel Park Richardson, a so-called songcatcher who documented the hillbilly songs of her era in the 1927 book "American Mountain Songs." Then Cantrell unveiled Richardson's arrangement of the oft-covered tune "Poor Ellen Smith" to thunderous applause.
Although they're separated by many decades, the similarities between Richardson and Cantrell are notable. Cantrell moved from Nashville to New York, where she is a modern-day songcatcher, covering recently penned songs and old gems alike. All of Cantrell's covers are carefully chosen, and she treated the audience to a few of her New York friends' songs -- such as Amy Allison's melancholy "The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter" and Joe Flood's up-tempo "All the Same to You" -- as well as older tunes. Although she and her band sounded timid on a shaky version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Hong Kong Blues," for the most part they were confident. Her revival of an old Tin Pan Alley-cum-Carter Family tune, "When the Roses Bloom Again," showed her three-piece band -- mandolin, acoustic and lap steel guitars, and upright bass -- meshing perfectly, with backing harmonies supporting her lilting twang.
Although Cantrell has written her own songs -- often inspired by the lives of other female country singers, such as Rose Maddox and Bonnie Owens -- it's clear that she takes great pleasure in uncovering the overlooked or forgotten tune. In Cantrell's enterprising spirit, Ethel Park Richardson's legacy lives on.
-- Catherine P. Lewis