Laura Cantrell, When the Roses Bloom Again, Diesel Only, Fall 2002

When our daughter was little we used to drive all night from New Jersey to Tennessee to visit her grandparents. Somewhere in Virginia we’d pick up one bluegrass program or another on the radio.

Those Appalachian melodies wafting out of the dark as we rolled through the night always made me feel cozy – and gave me chills at the same time. I get the same feeling when I listen to the music of Laura Cantrell.

Cantrell, whose latest CD is When the Roses Bloom Again, has an international fan base despite working in a bank by day and performing by night.

BBC radio personality John Peel called her debut album “my favourite record of the last 10 years and possibly my life.” Rolling Stone said she is a “modern woman with an old-timey heart, with a voice pitched somewhere between the bluesy realism of Lucinda Williams and the vintage femininity of Kitty Wells.” Elvis Costello picked her to open for him on his 2002 tour.

Cantrell, along with Rosanne Cash and Jesse Harris, performed March 21 at a benefit for Housing Works, a New York City organization whose programs assist homeless and formerly homeless people with AIDS. Among the songs Cantrell performed was one from When the Roses Bloom Again – “Conqueror’s Song” – which is only too timely.

Written by Dave Schramm during the first Gulf War, this heartbreakingly beautiful song (which asks the question, “How many more fell today?”) could become an anthem for everyone hoping to stop this war on Iraq and save lives – the lives both of our troops and of innocent Iraqis (see sidebar).

With so many celebrities speaking out against the war – or at least for their democratic right to do so – I asked Cantrell her view of the role of artists at a time like this.

“It’s a confusing moment to be any person in this country,” she said, let alone a public one. “Artists need to find something true,” which can come out in many different ways.

For example, Cash is a member of Musicians United to Win Without War and has written on her website about her position. On the other hand, singer Iris DeMent canceled a performance last week in Madison, Wisc., after her opening act had already appeared, because she said she had decided, after hours of agonizing over it, that it “would be trivializing the fact that my tax dollars are causing great suffering and sending a message to the world that might is right.”

Cantrell noted that there’s a “level of self-consciousness” among artists trying to find their way in these troubling times. They’re not experts on war and they aren’t pretending to be, but many also feel a responsibility to speak up.

Cantrell said she agrees with Steve Earle, who said during a recent concert, “It’s never un-American to express a dissenting opinion.”

“You have to be true to your own sense of connection to a song,” Cantrell said. “If the spirit moves you to sing a peace song, that’s what you should do.”

For the past 10 years Cantrell has perhaps been best known as the host of “The Radio Thrift Shop” every Saturday afternoon on “free-form” radio station WFMU in Jersey City, N.J. (see box).

“It’s a community-run station,” Cantrell told the Sunday Times of London, “all the people on air are volunteers. It attracts people who are historians of their genre.” In other words, whatever music you love, you’ll find a DJ on WFMU who loves it too – and plays it for free.

WFMU is “our own little utopian radio existence,” Cantrell said, and is funded entirely by listener donations. The station’s main goal in choosing its on-air staff is to find people with the ability to do interesting programs with a personal, rather than corporate, point of view.

Even as the economy has gone downhill in recent years, WFMU has been overfulfilling its fund drive goals. Cantrell attributes this to the fact that listeners realize “these unedited media outlets” are fewer and fewer and they appreciate it when they find one.

Although WFMU’s content is not particularly political, Cantrell said its DJs enjoy “being an outlet for [music and ideas] that aren’t going to get on a commercial [station].”

The popularity of her radio show – she was voted “Best Radio DJ” in the 2001 Citysearch “Best of New York City” poll – gave her the confidence to begin performing. She started to record, she told the Times, “just to see if we could make a recording that was as satisfying as our live shows.”

Those demos found their way (via a friend) to Scotland where the Shoeshine label asked her to record a full CD. That was 2001’s Not the Tremblin’ Kind, which won acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Now comes When the Roses Are in Bloom and Cantrell is again being hailed by everyone from Billboard to USA Today.

When the Roses Are in Bloom contains 12 songs – four of which Cantrell wrote – and all of them terrific. As Rolling Stone said about her, “On the radio, Cantrell plays country music the way it used to be [and] she sings it the way it ought to be.”

– Carolyn Rummel (

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Conqueror’s Song

You keep all your aces so close to your chest – tell me how many more fell today

you overcame fortune and overlooked fame – tell me how many more fell today

Tell me your reasons for fighting – tell me your kindness has saved the day

tell me I’m over-excited, how many more fell today?

A siren is sounding but this ain’t no drill – tell me the names of your friends today

your awesome ignorance shines in you still – tell me the names of your friends today

Give me one reason to like you – give me good reason to think like you

Honestly I think you’ve tried to – how many more fell today?

We’ve played along with your conquerer’s song

played along with your conquerer’s song too long

Tell me I’m over-excited – How many more fell today?

You keep all your aces so close to your chest – How many more fell today?

– words and music by Dave Schramm