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For an example of how difficult it has become to categorize all the different kinds of music that have come to be known as folk, look no further than the husband-and-wife duo of Al and Emily Cantrell. Since they joined their lives in the early ’80s, they have produced a striking blend of bluegrass, swing, jazz, and old-time music that has won them fans from coast to coast — including Hollywood.
Emily Cantrell was raised on a cotton and soybean farm in Nankipoo, TN, just a few miles north of her Memphis birthplace. She began playing the piano at the age of four, and much of her childhood was spent playing music with her brother Jim. As she grew, it also became evident that she possessed a powerful singing voice, a clear, ringing soprano that as an adult drew comparisons to Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. As if her instrumental and vocal talents weren’t enough, she began writing her own songs, demonstrating a deft hand with lyrics and imagery. In 1980, she moved to Boulder, CO, where she met Tim O’Brien, the leader of the influential bluegrass band Hot Rize. Impressed with her singing, O’Brien invited her to sing harmony on “Queen of Hearts,” on his 1984 release Hard Year Blues. In 1981, Emily founded her own bluegrass band, the Tractors.
Al Cantrell (b. Al Ehlers), a native of Corvallis, OR, was raised on the shore of Puget Sound in a place known as Three Tree Point. His family life was musical from the very beginning. His mother was a pianist and his father was a church organist, and Al wonders if his earliest musical experiences were the Bach fugues his father played while Al was still in his mother’s womb. He played violin in grade school but gave that up for the electric bass. His introduction to country music began with covers of Merle Haggard songs by the Grateful Dead. In the early ’80s, he returned to the fiddle, absorbing the styles of bluegrass and swing fiddlers like Vassar Clements and Johnny Gimble. After touring Europe he found himself in Boulder in 1983, and was invited to audition for the Tractors. He got the job, and when the band split up Al and Emily remained together, with Al taking Emily’s family name.
In 1988, the Cantrells moved to Nashville and recorded their first album Under a Southern Moon, a mixture of classics including the big-band favorite “Slow Boat to China” with banjoist Bela Fleck. The album gave Emily a chance to show off her versatility as a singer, and that combined with Al’s tasteful fiddle and mandolin made the album an attention-getting debut. A New Language, their 1991 follow-up release on Turquoise Records, featured Emily’s songs, and their 1995 Sombrero release Dancing with the Miller’s Daughter, found them hitting their stride with seven of the album’s ten tracks featuring original Cantrell material. This album was also distinguished by its lean yet powerful production that relied entirely on Emily’s voice and guitar backed by Al’s fiddle and mandolin.
In the early ’90s, as Robert Redford was preparing to produce and direct A River Runs Through It, he met the Cantrells at a party and was so taken with their music that he not only included it on the film’s soundtrack but he also cast Al and Emily in the church social scene – they’re the musicians, naturally.
In 2006 The Cantrells called again on their Nashville neighbors to record their CD The Heart Wants What It Wants, featuring Bela Fleck, Mark Schatz, Rob Ickes, and Jim Hurst. Based in Nashville, the Cantrells are recording a 5th CD between tours, once again featuring mostly new songs penned by Emily.