Music

Laura Cantrell

Chasing Ghosts on the Airwaves

Music Features Laura Cantrell
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Laura Cantrell

It turns out that Laura Cantrell isn’t the only member of her family to move to New York from Tennessee for a radio career. “I was sort of shocked, thinking that my … experience was unique to my family,” laughs singer/songwriter Cantrell when asked about her great-great aunt Ethel Park Richardson—a folksong collector and radio-show pioneer whose life eerily parallels her own.

Both hail from Tennessee, both became enamored with Appalachian folkways, and both ended up in New York City with radio shows devoted to preservation of this music. So Cantrell offered a tribute to Richardson with an obscure rendition of folk ballad “Poor Ellen Smith” on her third album (and first studio effort), Humming by the Flowered Vine.

“Ethel was very determined to collect the mountain sayings and songs out of her own interest in preserving the culture,” Cantrell continues, admitting she didn’t know that the song collector—whose life she’d read about for years—actually shared a branch on her family tree. “She was a schoolteacher who never really intended a commercial purpose to her collection, but found creative ways to use her knowledge that ultimately led her to New York and a very-long-running radio career. That parallel of an avocation that leads to a profession was very interesting to me.”

Cantrell, a student of Appalachian folk music, has done just that, with her previous two releases winning over everyone—from late, legendary British DJ John Peel to the Grand Ole Opry faithful—with their aching honesty and homespun charm.

It’s only fitting that Cantrell’s own “Radio Thrift Shop” (on WFMU FM) is actually a distant echo of the tradition that Richardson began 70 years earlier with the NBC radio drama Heart-throbs of the Hills. “But I cannot profess to be an expert in the way that she was,” Cantrell says modestly. “I do feel like there is a tradition of collectors/musicians/broadcast folk who have an impulse to share what they’ve learned. I can say pretty sincerely I fall into that category.”

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