Helen G reviews Laura Cantrell’s collection of covers of songs by Kitty Wells, the first female country star to release a long-playing record
Over the years, I’ve listened to a huge range of styles and genres of music. As a child, I was exposed to a lot of classical music and over the years I must have explored everything from rock to reggae, pop to techno, folk to jazz, Delta blues to dubstep. And in all of this diversity, it seems to me that the music which has come to mean most to me is characterised not so much by its label, but more by such imponderables as creativity, musicianship and, above all, its emotional resonance.
Often I’ve come to certain music in a very roundabout way. For example, I got into reggae having heard The Clash’s version of Police and Thieves, while The Rolling Stones’ blues covers inspired me to backtrack to the originals recorded by such greats as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. And, of course, there are the recommendations of friends.
Two people whose musical tastes I trust have, independently of each other and within the space of three days, raved about the same album: Laura Cantrell’s latest release, Kitty Wells Dresses: Songs of the Queen of Country Music.
Cantrell is a country singer and songwriter from Nashville, Tennessee, whose first album Not The Tremblin’ Kind caught the attention of John Peel and has stood the test of time, despite showcasing a more country-rock feel than the rootsier style of Kitty Wells Dresses. Between then and now, she has released another three albums, establishing a body of modern country music with an understated pop sensibility that includes an interesting mix of original tunes and covers, some of which – New Order’s Love Vigilantes comes to mind – I can imagine causing purists to choke on their sippin’ whiskey.
But this album is a different thing entirely. It would be easy to say it’s a return to her country roots but the fact is that, despite appearances to the contrary, she’s never really strayed that far from them. Opening with the only self-penned song on the album, Kitty Wells Dresses: Songs of the Queen of Country Music proceeds to offer exactly what its title says: a collection of covers of songs recorded by Kitty Wells, the country singer who had a long run of commercial success in the 1950s and 60s, racking up more than 50 hits in the US country music charts. In the process she became the first female country star to top the chart, as well as the first to release a long-playing record and the oldest living member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In the promotional notes for the album, Cantrell says:
“I’ve been a Kitty Wells fan since childhood… I always responded to the fundamental feeling in Wells’ singing, her way of sounding both emotional and restrained at once, as if she were hanging on despite life’s many hardships.”
It is a measure of Laura Cantrell’s knowledge of her source material, along with her obvious love and respect for it, that she selected only four of the hits for the album: Making Believe, Amigo’s Guitar, Poison In Your Heart and It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.
This last song is notable for being not only the first No. 1 Billboard country hit (in 1952) for a solo female artist but also for its longevity, having been covered by many other women over the years, including Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette (for their 1993 album Honky Tonk Angels) and Patsy Cline. But perhaps the most significant aspect of the song, written by J.D. ‘Jay’ Miller as a rejoinder to Hank Thompson’s paternalistic The Wild Side of Life, was its rejection of the stereotypical view that women should be submissive to men and put up with their infidelities – and be blamed as the reason men slept around:
It’s a shame that all the blame is on us women
It’s not true that only you men feel the same
From the start ‘most every heart that’s ever broken
Was because there always was a man to blame
The remaining five songs on the album are no less strong for not having charted. Credit is due to both the empathic production, as well as the sparse instrumentation by musicians from BR549 and Calexico – often little more than guitar and pedal steel or fiddle over a restrained rhythm section – for providing an ideal setting for Laura Cantrell’s vocals, which more than adequately display the emotion and restraint she admires in Kitty Wells’ singing.
It’s this combination of emotion and restraint that really makes Kitty Wells Dresses special. The songs pluck at the listener’s heartstrings and evoke nostalgia for a (probably non-existent) time when life was simpler, even though human emotions – particularly around affaires de coeur – were no less complex or intense than they are today. These are the qualities that define this album and imbue it with a sense of timelessness. It’s a very 21st century record that sounds like it should be playing through a radio in an Edward Hopper painting.
- Kitty Wells Dresses
- I Don’t Claim To Be An Angel
- Poison In Your Heart
- One By One
- I Can’t Tell My Heart
- It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels
- Making Believe
- Amigo’s Guitar
- I Gave My Wedding Dress Away
- Searching For a Soldier’s Grave