Al Cantrell plays the devil's fiddle. It's lucky, then, that his wife Emily has an angel's voice.
The Cantrells' eclectic mix of folk and jazz, of contredanse staples and bluegrass originals provide for a night of music worth remembering. The duo will be headlining at the Black Rose Acoustic Society Open Stage on Friday, Sept. 24, at the Black Forest Community Center.
The Cantrells are well known within the folk and traditional circles, particularly after being handpicked by Robert Redford to appear in his movie, A River Runs Through It. Emily provides hauntingly clear vocals and plays a strong rhythm guitar. Al Cantrell adds his own lead vocals and constantly switches from "sizzling" award-winning fiddle to mandolin in his own style, drawing from influences as diverse as Jesse McReynolds and Jerry Garcia.
While they enjoy the recognition, they're eager to point out that they don't fit neatly into any one genre. "Technically, we say that it's 'original and traditional folk and bluegrass,' but it expands beyond that," said Emily Cantrell. "We like to say that we play a variety of styles on bluegrass instruments, since we draw from other styles like big band and Celtic."
Her husband agrees. "It's really defined by what isn't there."
Emily Cantrell grew up on a soybean and cotton farm north of Memphis, Tenn., and Al Cantrell hails from the Seattle area. The two met in Boulder, marrying in 1985. Today, the duo is based out of Nashville, and their music has been featured on National Public Radio's "Mountain Stage" and "Riders Radio Theater" as well as numerous other local, regional and national radio programs.
Their fourth album, The Heart Wants What It Wants, has recently been released, featuring such notables as Tim O'Brien and Bela Fleck.
"It's a compilation of songs from the heart," Emily Cantrell said. With a nod to the album's title, she notes, "I'd like to think that I only sing from the heart. In songwriting, I tried to follow a theme -- songs about family and love. There's a variety of ways that we deal with it, and I also tried to show what happens if people don't follow their heart."
Her vocals often earn her comparisons to Joni Mitchell, with an airy, jazzy quality and a good ear for storytelling. The Heart Wants showcases those songwriting talents with songs like "Falling Forever For You," a good old-fashioned honky-tonk song full of longing. "The Quilt" is rich in imagery, and "Snowbound" is a Christmas song done in an unapologetic '40s-era Bing Crosby crooner style. Overall, the sweet vocals and charming music hearken to a time of rocking on porches and drinking mint juleps in the moonlight, but they avoid feeling archaic or out of touch.
Fleck, who plays banjo on the album, is one of many of The Cantrells' admirers who have contributed to their albums. "When we first moved to Nashville about 13 years or so ago, we just opened the phone book, and there he was. Now, he's often too busy," Emily Cantrell said. "But one day we ran into him at a health food store and asked him, 'Do you have time now?' He said, 'Absolutely.'"
While she is still in awe over their fortune of getting such magnificent players on their album, Al has other ideas. "I'm sure that they were inspired by Emily's wonderful songwriting. I'll say that, so she doesn't have to," he said.
-- Kara Luger
capsule Black Rose Acoustic Society Open Stage featuring The Cantrells
Friday, Sept. 24, 7:30 p.m.
Black Forest Community Center, Black Forest and Shoup roads