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Cantrell was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee; her father was a lawyer (in time, he earned a seat with the Tennessee Court of Appeals), and she initially intended to follow suit. However, as a teenager she developed a keen interest in music, and before leaving Tennessee to attend Columbia University, she landed a summer job as a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame. The job sparked an interest in classic country sounds of the '30s, '40s, and '50s, and while at Columbia she became involved in student radio, hosting a show in which she spun country sounds both old and new, as well as immersing herself in the alternative rock scene. Cantrell discovered she liked to sing, and began making occasional club appearances with her many musically inclined friends; she also made her recording debut in 1990, singing backup on a single by Bricks, a lo-fi collaboration between Mac McCaughan of Superchunk and Andrew Webster of Tsunami. Cantrell's interest in radio led to her landing her own show on New Jersey's WFMU-FM, one of America's best regarded free-form radio stations, and on Radio Thrift Shop Cantrell won a large and loyal audience playing classic country, folk, and singer/songwriter recordings as well as her favorite artists from New York's burgeoning alt-country scene.
In 1996, Cantrell released her first solo recording, a locally distributed EP called Hello; by this time, Cantrell was supporting her enthusiasm for music by working in the New York offices of Bank of America, where she rose to the position of Vice President of Equity Research (making her that rare musician who can actually understand an accounting statement from her record company). In 1999, Cantrell recorded her first album, Not the Tremblin' Kind, which was produced by Jay Sherman-Godfrey, a former member of New York-based honky tonk rockers the World Famous Blue Jays (whose leader, Jeremy Tepper, is also Cantrell's husband). Released by a small Scottish label, Spit & Polish Records, Not the Tremblin' Kind soon received a stack of rave reviews, most notably from legendary British disc jockey John Peel, who called it "my favorite record from the last ten years, and possibly my life." (Cantrell made five appearances on his BBC Radio program.) Tepper's "rig rock" label Diesel Only Records released the album stateside in 2000, and Cantrell quickly began balancing tour dates and recording sessions with her careers in finance and radio. (Cantrell, describing music as "insanely expensive," has yet to quit her day job, despite her growing success in music.)
Cantrell's second album, When the Roses Bloom Again, followed in 2002; to support its release, Cantrell toured Europe and the United States opening for another noted fan of her records, Elvis Costello. In 2004 she released The Hello Recordings, a five-song collection of demos, followed by the full-length J.D. Foster-produced Humming by the Flowered Vine in 2005, which was dedicated to the memory of John Peel. After touring in support of the album, Cantrell chose to spend her time child-rearing and performed only sporadically between 2006 and 2011, including a well-received performance at the Barbican Centre in London in 2008. Cantrell re-emerged in 2011 with the Mark Nevers-produced album Kitty Wells Dresses: Songs of the Queen of Country Music, a collection featuring one original and a slew of interpretations associated with Wells, who -- 91 years old at the time of the album's release -- was the oldest living member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In 2013, Cantrell traveled to Nashville to record her fifth studio album. No Way There from Here, a return to the style and outlook of Humming by the Flowered Vine, was released in the U.K. in late 2013, and appeared in the United States in early 2014. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi