Laura Cantrell doesn't attempt to recontextualize the classic material she essays on her new full-length Kitty Wells Dresses: Songs of the Queen of Country Music, and whether or not this bothers you depends on your view of country history. In its modest way, Kitty Wells Dresses is an impeccable piece of work that stays true to the original impulses of Wells' groundbreaking '50s and '60s recordings. Like Wells, Cantrell is a Nashville native immersed in the country idiom. But you get the idea Cantrell resists the urge to tinker with the songs because she thinks their sentiments remain modern underneath their old-fashioned trappings — a strategy that only emphasizes our distance from Wells' era.
Cut with producer Mark Nevers at his Beech House Recording, Kitty Wells Dresses marks the first time Cantrell has made a recording in Nashville. A resident of New York City for 20 years, Cantrell had long been fascinated by Wells before the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum — who had mounted a 2008 Wells exhibit — invited her to perform a concert of Wells' songs in 2009.
"I'd done the show at the Hall of Fame, and that was so much fun," says Cantrell. "We should have just gone in literally the day after we had the concert and recorded what we had done. But I'd known Mark Nevers from Lambchop, and I'd played a lot of the records he's made over the years on my [WFMU] Radio Thrift Shop program in New York. I trusted his ability to be respectful of the traditions of country music in Nashville and not, like, be in the museum making a replica of something."
A devotee of country music history who has made several well-regarded records of her own, Cantrell attracted attention with 2000's full-length debut Not the Tremblin' Kind. An elegant mixture of Byrds-like guitars, narrative concision and Cantrell's cool, conversational vocals, it remains an impressive piece of alt-country. Unlike many Americana artists attempting country, Cantrell has avoided the dreaded record-collector syndrome — she makes it all sound natural.
"I've known her since the early days of Lambchop, 'cause we'd always meet up with her in New York when we were on tour," says Nevers. "You know how ignorant and stupid I am — I saw her play at a bar there in New York, and I was like, 'Damn, that doesn't sound like Yankee country.' She said, 'Well, I'm not from here,' and told me she was from Nashville. It made sense."
Assembling a band that included drummer Ben Martin, guitarists Ben Hall and William Tyler and background singer Caitlin Rose, Nevers and Cantrell recorded Kitty Wells Dresses quickly. "We did it very efficiently in a couple of afternoons," Cantrell says. "Then I took the tracks home, and we put on some background singing. I actually caught Chuck Mead when he was up here working on the [musical] Million Dollar Quartet — he was in Brooklyn for two months, and I was like, 'Dude, you've got to come sing.' "
Mead adds his baritone vocal to "One by One," while Paul Burch — another superb student and purveyor of classic country — plays drums and guitar on two tracks. Kitty Wells Dresses functions beautifully as an overview of Wells' music, and that seems to have been the intention — Cantrell's respect for Wells' huge contributions is palpable. As she says, "It has something to do with the modest way she presented herself to the world, even though she's quite dignified and aware of her place in history. That sort of basic modesty is very old-school."