Rosanne Cash explored her musical history, in reverse, during the opening night of three special performances as the 2015 artist-in-residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
As Museum Chief Executive Officer Kyle Young explained in his introductory remarks, each of Cash’s performances will be unique, with different songs, different band members, and different guests. For her first concert, she focused on her Grammy-winning 2014 album, The River and the Thread. “We’re going to perform the album in sequence,” Cash said, “which is something I’ve always wanted to do.”
The second segment of the concert drew on Cash’s hits, mixing in a few special cover tunes. Surprise guest appearances by Tony Joe White, Lucinda Williams, and Cory Chisel drew enormously positive responses from the CMA Theater crowd.
In his introductory remarks, Young described the album as “a haunting, moving piece of work, full of mystery and revelation. The songs explore a history that is intensely personal yet evocative of the American South. The songs mix myth and fact to tell a story that, like the mighty Mississippi, is dark and turbulent yet ultimately life-affirming and eternal.”
For Cash, the album was inspired by several trips to her father’s childhood home in Dyess, Arkansas. The singer-songwriter worked with Arkansas State University to restore the small, sharecropper home in the Mississippi Delta. She headlined several multi-artist benefit concerts in Jonesboro, Arkansas, to raise funds and help the university turn the modest home into a tourist attraction.
Visiting the Delta led Cash and her husband, producer and guitarist John Leventhal, to journey deeper into the Deep South. Her trips included stops at the home of author William Faulkner, the grave of blues legend Robert Johnson, a bridge over the Tallahatchie River, and the small Mississippi town where fourteen-year-old African-American Emmett Till was brutally murdered, in 1955, after being accused of flirting with a white girl. The tragedy helped spur the Civil Rights movement, Cash explained.
Her travels culminated in a spate of songs that turned into The River and the Thread, released in January 2014, to immense critical acclaim. Cash swept the Americana categories at the 2014 Grammy Awards: The River and the Thread was named Best Americana Album, and a song from the album, “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” won Best American Roots Performance and Best American Roots Song. The Americana Music Association named The River and the Thread Album of the Year.
Cash opened her three-hour set with “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” the album’s first cut, setting a tone for the night with its mix of swamp grooves and probing, intelligent lyrics. “A feather’s not a bird, the rain is not the sea,” Cash sang in her smoky alto, over an arrangement that updated the Delta blues for modern times. “A stone is not a mountain, but a river runs through me.”
She continued through a diverse musical set, with each song feeding the concept of The River and the Thread in the same way tributaries pass through mountains, cities, and muddy lowlands to feed a river. Cash’s songs addressed how the hopeless find solace in their faith (“Tell Heaven”) and how land devastated by an 1811 earthquake eventually provided a burial place for Civil War dead and rich farmland for sharecroppers (“The Sunken Lands”).
She also performed a touching ballad about the sweet, six-decade marriage of Johnny Cash’s long-time bassist, Marshall Grant (“Etta’s Tune”), and about the highs and lows of her own marriage, which, because of their musical partnership, finds them not only living together, but working creatively together, traveling the world together, and making business decisions together.
Her outstanding band—with Leventhal and Kevin Barry on guitars, Glen Patscha on keyboards, Zev Katz on bass, and Dan Rieser on drums—provided subtle yet moodily dramatic settings for each song.
The album’s songs frequently reference highways and roads—another signifier of the “threads” that weave through our lives, as we move from one location to the next, and from one aspect and era of our lives to the next. The River and the Thread isn’t an album Cash could have written as a young woman; it needed the perspective and experience—and a sense of how, after having matured, she dealt with the death of her parents, divorced and remarried, and raised two families with children—that going back to her roots provided because of the powerful images, themes, and thoughts it evoked in her.
Cash underscored those threads with thoughtful, sometimes witty, commentary to introduce each song. She told how “The Sunken Lands” was inspired by Carrie Cash, her grandmother, who held her father’s family together through starkly difficult times. Rosanne dedicated the song to her uncle, Tommy Cash, who was in the audience.
Another song, “When the Master Calls the Roll,” started when she helped her son with an eighth-grade research paper on the Civil War. She told him that their family had relatives who fought on both the Union and Confederate sides, including William Cash, whose photo is featured on a Civil War registry website. Cash also knew of a twenty-year-old ancestor, Mary Ann Cash, from the Civil War period. She wanted to write a song imagining William and Mary Ann together. She asked her ex-husband Rodney Crowell to help her with the lyrics, set to music by her husband, John Leventhal.
As the eleven-song cycle of The River and the Thread ended, Cash beamed, and the crowd responded with a loud ovation.
For the second part of her performance, Cash roamed through a thirty-five-year career that preceded The River and the Thread. The songs included two of her first three #1 country hits—1981’s “Seven Year Ache” and 1982’s “Blue Moon with Heartache”—and more recent works such as “Radio Operator,” from 2006 album Black Cadillac, and several tunes from her 2009 album of cover songs, The List.
Particularly powerful was Cash’s stripped-down take on “Ode to Billy Joe,” Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 crossover classic. Backed only by Leventhal on acoustic guitar, Cash brought out all the gothic nuances in a song that Cash said helped inspire the musical arrangements on The River and the Thread.
Williams, for her guest spot, performed “Something About What Happens When We Talk,” with Cash on harmony. Williams recalled a tour of Australia in which she was joined by Cash and Mary Chapin Carpenter in 1992. White came out and played an extended version of his classic “Polk Salad Annie,” as his gritty guitar and slide led to a three-guitar jam with Barry and Leventhal.
By her own admission, Cash purposely has sought to define her creative life outside the shadow of the weighty musical heritage of her father and that of her stepmother, the Carter family. Ultimately, Cash recognizes that her work has become part of that family legacy, and she has spent her last three albums (Black Cadillac, The List, and The River and the Thread) dealing with the dynasty she was born into, and that is part of her story. Her first residency concert proved just how well she has succeeded at crafting a monumental creative statement that ranks among the most consistent and most enduring of her generation.
Established in 2003, the museum’s artist-in-residence program annually honors a musical master who can be credited with contributing a large and significant body of work to the canon of American popular music. Honorees are given a blank canvas and are encouraged to lend their own creative brushstrokes to an up-close-and-personal musical experience. Previous Artist-in-Residence honorees include Cowboy Jack Clement, Earl Scruggs, Tom T. Hall, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill, Buddy Miller, Connie Smith, Kenny Rogers, Ricky Skaggs, and Alan Jackson.
Cash proudly pointed out she was only the second female on the residency list, “after the magnificent Connie Smith,” Cash said. “I’m thrilled and completely honored.”
Cash embraced the residency concept by curating three one-of-a-kind programs exploring different aspects of her artistry and career. Each show will be unlike anything she has presented on stage in the past.
Cash returns for her second program tonight (September 3). It will also feature Lucinda Williams as a guest, as well as Country Music Hall of Fame member Emmylou Harris. A third program, featuring Cash and Leventhal, is set for September 24 in the museum’s intimate, 213-seat Ford Theater. Both programs are sold out.