Laura Cantrell - "Kitty Wells Dresses" (Kitty Wells Dresses: Songs of the Queen of Country Music)
In the Rock Snob’s Dictionary, Laura Cantrell is one of two “attractive, slightly wind-chapped young women” who appear in the entry for “Americana” with a cross-reference to “Alt.Country.” Literally. I am not making this up. Tift Merritt is surely Cantrell’s closest competition, but both singers are part of a female neo-traditional country coterie that encompasses other talented singer-songwriters such as Megan Reilly and Neko Case. Of the artists in this distinguished group, Cantrell can arguably lay claim to the most compelling and also traditional oeuvre. Having honed her sense of country music history through the plum summer job of tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame, Cantrell has infused that ethos into a series of excellent full-length recordings since the turn of the century.
With Kitty Wells Dresses: Songs of the Queen of Country Music, Cantrell puts her tradition front and center. A country legend whose career tracked the apex of the honky tonk style and its transition into the “countrypolitan” Nashville sound, Kitty Wells is best known for her recording of “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” a feminist rejoinder to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life.” Cantrell’s choice of Wells for a covers album — which stemmed from an invitation from the Country Music Hall of Fame to organize a musical program for a Kitty Wells exhibit — was fortuitous and inspired. With a straight vocal delivery and nostalgic but restrained instrumentation, Cantrell positions herself midway between the nasal tenor and stringed cries of Wells’s recordings and the silky studio sheen and orchestral sweep of Emmylou Harris’s. Cantrell does not reach the emotional heights of those singers at their best, but neither does she lapse into their occasionally cloying affectations.
Aside from Cantrell’s original title track — the slightly more modern aesthetic of which only reinforces the basic continuity between Wells and Cantrell — the set list of Kitty Wells Dresses draws together fairly well-known compositions such as “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” “Making Believe” (also memorably recorded by Emmylou Harris), “I Gave My Wedding Dress Away,” and “I Can’t Tell My Heart” (also performed by Hank Williams, among others). However, the more obscure numbers such as “I Don’t Claim to Be an Angel” and “Poison in Your Heart” are also endearing and delivered with unfailing class. Cantrell’s ace studio hands fill out each track’s stately gallop with a wealth of gentle sighs from fiddles and pedal steel guitars.
Impeccably tasteful, Kitty Wells Dresses is no mere museum piece. It deserves to rest in an enthusiast’s country collection somewhere among, say, Buck Owens Sings Harlan Howard and Del Shannon Sings Hank Williams. On balance, Cantrell’s reverent restraint is more appealing than the sort of adventurous but uneven approach to the contemporary cover of classic country exemplified by Dwight Meets Buck, and its trip from Bakersfield to the arena. Still, Kitty Wells Dresses doesn’t have quite the understated emotional resonance of Cantrell’s best, more pop-inflected recordings, which include renditions of obscure gems by people Cantrell has worked with or just admired — among them “Two Seconds,”“Not the Trembling Kind,”“Little Bit of You,”“14th Street,” even “Love Vigilantes.” Cantrell’s most recent covers album wets one’s appetite for new renditions of a more contemporary kind.