What could be simpler? Two voices, a guitar, a fiddle, sometimes a mandolin, blending on songs that belong to all of us, even if we've never heard them before. What could be more mysterious? The Cantrells play folk music, but don't let that scare you. Cowboy songs, hillbilly songs, western swing, a little bluegrass, public-domain ballads and original tunes that distill everything the band has inherited -- this is folk music faithful to no principle save one: the pleasure principle found in melody, harmony and improvisation. Over their twenty years together, Emily and Al Cantrell (intriguingly, it was the husband who took the wife's last name) have recorded sparingly (only three records since 1988), but they've built a nationwide following that even includes Robert Redford, who featured them as old-time musicians in a brief scene in his 1992 film A River Runs Through It.
But what's most striking about the Cantrells is how un-old-timey they can be: Emily sings with barely a hint of her Nankipoo, Tennessee, birthplace: Her big, voluptuous voice reminds some of Joni Mitchell or Matraca Berg, but she's perhaps closest to contemporary-country goddess Patty Loveless or maybe a jazz-pop singer like Lena Horne (minus the vibrato and evening gowns). As a songwriter she's not much interested in archetypes like death and farming but rather in the terse craft of the pop love ballad. And then there's Al's jazzy, idiosyncratic mandolin and fiddle work; it's no wonder Béla Fleck's banjo sounds right at home on the Cantrells' first album, Under a Southern Moon. The Cantrells may not be as well known as contemporary folk duos such as Robin and Linda Williams or Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, but fans of either group should make haste to the acoustically ideal Focal Point to find out what they've been missing.
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