The Cantrells Come to the Library: An Americana Myth of Home

The Cantrells at the Laramie County Library

I wandered again through my home in the mountain
Where in youth’s early dawn I was happy and free.
I look for my friends, but I never could find ’em.
I found they were all rank strangers to me.
-“Rank Stranger” (traditional)

There’s an element of home woven into traditional folk and country music.  Celebrations of family and home, laments for homes left far behind (across the sea or across the years), gospels of our home to come.  Even the traditional love song is, at heart, about creating something more than ourselves in which to belong.

The Laramie County Library welcomed The Cantrells to Cheyenne Friday night as part of a fall music and popular culture series:

The Laramie County Library System and the Cheyenne Symphony Orchestra present America’s Music: A film history of our popular music from Blues to Bluegrass to Broadway, beginning in September.  The six part film and discussion series will feature films covering different genres of American music, along with lively discussions with musician and scholar, Dennis Coelho.

Emily and Al Cantrell bring together the traditional styles we have come to associate with “Americana” music.  Their acoustic set at the library ranged from Appalachian folk standards to bluegrass, Irish fiddle to Montana string band and Sons of the Pioneers.  Emily even demonstrated that “fiddle sticks” are a thing, not just a family-friendly expletive.

This is a sound I have also come to associate with “home”.  Or I should say, I have come to associate this sound with MY myth of home.  Americana is the style and story that rings true to me, across place and time.  The instruments and rhythms both pay homage to tradition and use tradition to build new presentation.  The poetry combines old tales with new observations.

I’ve lived in many states across the Midwest and Rocky Mountain States.  My parents’ families were firmly rooted as pioneers in Michigan, but I have found many places to love across this great nation of ours.  When we moved back Out West last year, my wife remarked how much it felt like coming back home.  Driving down Mulberry in Fort Collins, from the Poudre River to Old Town with KRFC on the radio, it felt like we never left.  While they live in Nashville today, The Cantrells have shared many of the places I’ve called home, from the Front Range of Colorado to Montana’s Gallatin Valley.  Their 1996 album, Dancing With the Miller’s Daughter, ripples of high mountains and moving waters.  They even had a bit part in Robert Redford’s film of A River Runs Through It, one of my favorite stories and a mighty myth about the meaning of family and home.

Johnny come home, the rooster’s crowing.
Johnny what makes you stay so late?
Johnny is off a wild seed a-sowing.
He’s over the Peaks of Otter.
He’s dancin’ with the miller’s daughter.
-Peaks of Otter (Jim Schulz)

In our mobile society, local institutions like the library and live music venues play an important role in “placemaking” and making people feel at home.  Community is built on Third Places between home (the “first place”) and work (the “second place” we occupy most).  It is not their job to define the place.  It is not their job to define our own myths for us.  Third places help the people who live and work in a place to find their own shared stories, their own common ground—to build something more than themselves.

Place making is not something that can be forced.  Disney, for example, tries to create a sanatized, mythological place and it comes off for what it is:  the great American amusement park, a place to visit but not a place to live.  However much we might try, we can’t move in to the Mouse’s house and call it home.  Too many of our suburbs have tried Disneyfication, to build pale imitations of what they can never be.  Too many of our small towns and our big city downtowns have tried to glom onto the latest shiny object, to adopt the latest development fad and most all of them have faded as pale imitations of the real thing.

Place making—like lasting music and literature—is about adapting what you have to where you want to go.  It can’t be forced.  It can’t be manufactured.  It won’t be the same thing for any two people any more than any two towns.  It can only be found, in the thousand small experiments of the people who call a place home.

Kudos to Laramie County Library for taking one of those experiments that help us call Cheyenne home.

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Perhaps this essay explains a bit why I combine the topics of economic development, urban planning and Americana music on my blog here.  Its all about being true to who—and where—you are.

For the rest of you, The Cantrells still have some shows you can catch on this tour through Wyoming and Colorado:

  • Sunday 20 October at Avogadro’s Number, Fort Collins
  • Thursday 24th, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, Casper  (Star-Trib news)
  • Saturday 26th, Barbed Wire Bookstore, Longmont

p.s. I don’t know that Al & Emily are related to one-time roots DJ Laura Cantrell, but I like her alt-country vibe as well.  If you like the video of “Reflections off the Water, check out the Gallatin Valley strings of John Lowell & Ben Winship’s turn-of-the century stringband Kane’s River & their associated project “Fishing Music“.

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