For an example of how difficult it has become over the years to categorize and label 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 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, who at the time was the leader of the influential neo-traditionalist bluegrass band Hot Rize. Impressed with her singing, O'Brien eventually invited her to sing harmony on "Queen of Hearts," from his 1984 solo Flying Fish release Hard Year Blues. In 1981, Emily founded her own bluegrass band called the Tractors (no relation to the retro-country band of the same name that appeared in the 1990s).
Al Cantrell (b. Al Ehlers), a native of Corvallis, OR, was raised along the shores of the Puget Sound between Tacoma and Seattle in a place known as Three Tree Point. His family life was musical from the very beginning. His father was a church organist, and Al claims his earliest musical experiences were the Bach fugues he heard his father play while still in his mother's womb. He began playing violin in grade school, but soon gave that up in favor of rock & roll and the electric bass. His fascination with country music and related substyles began upon hearing covers of Merle Haggard tunes by high-profile rock bands like the Grateful Dead. In the early '80s, he returned to the fiddle and became the protégé of the noted Idaho fiddler Teddy Jones, while also absorbing as much of the styles of great bluegrass and swing fiddlers like Vassar Clements and Johnny Gimble as he could. After touring Europe for a while, 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 several years later, Al and Emily remained a couple in both personal and professional life, with Al taking Emily's name, Cantrell -- "Little Singer."
In 1988, the Cantrells moved to Nashville and produced a demo tape that eventually became their first album (on Sombrero Records), Under a Southern Moon, a mixture of classic swing and big-band favorites like "Slow Boat to China," done in an acoustic bluegrass-based style. Although none of the tunes were written by Emily, the album did give her a chance to show off her versatility as a singer, and that combined with Al's tasteful fiddle-and-mandolin backing made the album a convincing and attention-getting debut. A New Language, their 1991 follow-up release on Turquoise Records, included some of Emily's songs, but it was their 1995 Sombrero release, Dancing with the Miller's Daughter, that 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, with no other studio musicians at hand.
In the early '90s, as Robert Redford was preparing to produce and direct A River Runs Through It (released in 1992), 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 as extras in the "church social" scene -- they're the musicians, naturally. After moving from Nashville to Ohio in the late '90s, the Cantrells continued to tour and perform across the country, winning new fans everywhere with their stylish brand of acoustic music.