Laura Cantrell | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Laura Cantrell

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As host of the popular WFMU program Radio Thrift Shop, Nashville native Laura Cantrell has been celebrated for her catholic taste in country music; her playlists thoroughly explore country's deep past but leave room for its gospel and jazz progenitors and modern-day outliers. But on her third album, Humming by the Flowered Vine (Matador), Cantrell seems newly intent on breaking down the distinctions between all these idioms: she and producer J.D. Foster work traces of bluegrass, folk rock, and honky-tonk into an entirely contemporary and personal sound. It's the consistency of this sound that unites a varied set of songs including originals, tunes written by her peers, an old Bakersfield gem by Wynn Stewart, and the traditional murder ballad "Poor Ellen Smith" (collected by Ethel Park Richardson, a Tennessee "song catcher" who, Cantrell recently discovered, was her great-great-great aunt). Though her voice is rather thin and her range only modest, Cantrell stays carefully within her limits. Singing her original "Khaki and Corduroy," a poignant catalog of college memories, she adopts some of Lucinda Williams's sensual vulnerability--but wisely doesn't when she covers Williams's previously unrecorded "Letters." She draws on her command of country history to paint a touching portrait of the legendary Rose Maddox on "California Rose," while on "Old Downtown" she surveys landmarks of her youth as a reflection on her life today. Some reviews of this record have accused Cantrell of disloyalty to traditional country, but to me it just sounds like an artist moving past her influences and finding herself. Shelley Short opens. Wed 8/17, 9 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport, 773-525-2508, $12.

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