Modern-day troubadours 

Making a living the old-fashioned way with The Cantrells

I stopped purchasing contemporary music recorded on major labels shortly after the Beatles broke up in the early 1970s—when I realized corporate America was not only trying to dictate the direction of my musical tastes, but was also turning rock, folk, country and jazz music into vanilla-flavored fluff.

I may have missed hearing a few truly talented so-called superstars along the way, but I continued assembling a collection of great music by talented, free-spirited artists. I purchased many of those recordings after attending live concerts, many of which were promoted by the Missoula Folklore Society. This Friday, MFS brings back two stellar musicians whose first LP I purchased in 1989 after a concert in the now-defunct Pitz Ballroom, located in the attic of the old Montgomery Ward Building on Higgins Avenue.

The pop-oriented public might view the Cantrells as failures for not producing any big hits on a major record label during their 17-year career. Yet these modern-day troubadours continue to earn a living by singing at more than 100 concerts around the country every year—much like musicians used to do before the advent of radio and phonograph records.

What can you expect at a Cantrells concert? As for style of music, that’s a little hard to pin down.

“We are able to play for both folk and bluegrass audiences,” says Al Cantrell, who plays a jazzy fiddle and mandolin in the tradition of old western swing musicians—like Joe Holley of the Texas Playboys and Karl Farr of the Sons of the Pioneers. “We can do either one. Plus, with Emily’s songs, we fit into the singer-songwriter niche, which remains pretty undefined nowadays.”

To attract fans in the early days, the Cantrells relied on a tasteful, eclectic blend of cowboy ballads, western swing, show tunes, traditional and contemporary folk songs, bluegrass and Celtic music. In fact, in the early ‘90s when they were based in Helena, the duo often played for New England contra dances in the Union Hall. Al’s fiddle tune, “Road to Burhania,” was recorded by the Ohio-based band Hotpoint as the title number for their latest album.

Nowadays, the confluence of various musical influences becomes most evident in Emily’s own compositions, such as “Shooting Star” and “See You Again.” She delivers the melodic yet unpredictable and cleverly crafted songs in a clear voice that straddles a vast range—subtly jumping from sultry alto to clear soprano in the tinkling of an eighth note—much like Joni Mitchell did in her early recordings. The main thread that weaves through Emily’s original compositions is her love of the West whose “natural beauty has had a great influence in my songwriting,” says the native Tennessean.

The duo’s harmonies sound as comfortable and natural as a long-married couple talking over one another as they simultaneously relate shared experiences to friends over coffee. The couple first met in Boulder, Colo. when Emily’s band advertised for a fiddler. A year later the band broke up, Al and Emily got married and the Cantrells were born. After spending time in Ohio and Montana, the couple moved to Nashville in the mid-1990s to take advantage of industry connections and to be close to Emily’s family.

Nowadays, most tours take them through the Rust Belt from Chicago to Washington, D.C. On this Montana trip, they will also perform in Red Lodge and Billings.

“A strange hex was put upon both of us by some evil spirit that directed us down the musical path,” Emily says. “As a child I was mesmerized by the old musicals starring Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby. And I’ve never stopped since.”

Al, who grew up “with a lot of music in my home,” made a little money playing in rock bands at the local dances while in high school. “All along I was trying to think of a traditional career to follow,” he remembers, “But that withered away and music became my life.”

Today, Emily explains, music for the couple “is almost like a real job.” Concert goers in Missoula can expect to hear a bunch of new songs from the Cantrells’ latest CD, The Heart Wants. It’s guaranteed to be more good music inspired by their hearts and not by corporate demographics.

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