September 24, 2015
Throughout the three completely different concerts Rosanne Cash presented as the 2015 artist-in-residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, there have been several constants: Cash’s amber-toned alto voice, sounding as rich and as expressive as ever; her poetic and deeply considered songwriting; her grounded, glowingly charismatic stage presence; and the tasteful guitar work of her husband, John Leventhal.
Her final concert, a duo performance with just Cash on voice and acoustic guitar and Leventhal on acoustic guitar and piano, underscored that the residency series caught the sixty-year-old Cash at the height of her creative powers. As outstanding as she often has been in her thirty-seven-year career, she has never sounded better than she did across these diverse, memorable performances.
For her final concert, Cash moved to the museum’s smaller Ford Theater, which, at 213 seats, is about a fourth the size of the CMA Theater, the museum venue where her previous shows took place. The intimate setting not only brought her voice and stage manner into sharper focus; it also allowed the audience to absorb the articulate, often spiritual way Cash connects her songs to her personal story and to the universal threads of life, and highlighted the warm, loving rapport she has developed with her husband, producer, and guitarist.
Over a one-hour, forty-five minute show, Cash surveyed her career and threw in a few surprises: a slow and moving version of Bobbie Gentry’s classic “Ode to Billie Joe”; a piano-and-voice rendition of her Grammy-winning, 1985 #1 hit, “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me”; her third-ever performance of her 1987 #1 hit “The Way to Make a Broken Heart,” written by John Hiatt; and a closing version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” featuring her daughter Chelsea Crowell as duet partner and son-in-law Daniel Knobler (husband of her daughter Carrie Crowell) on guitar.
Over the course of the night, Cash presented a generous portion of her Grammy-winning 2014 album, The River and the Thread, and four songs from her 2009 covers album, The List; she also swept along from her earliest hits, 1981’s “Seven Year Ache” and “Blue Moon with Heartache,” to “Dreams Are Not My Home,” from 2006’s Black Cadillac.
At the start, Cash described the artist-in-residence concerts as a delightful experience for her. “It has been such an honor,” she said, noting that earlier in the day she surprised the audience at a “Cash on Cash” performance at the museum, joining her daughter Chelsea to sing songs and talk about the history of the Cash and Carter families and their music. After that, Cash said, “I went to see my father,” going into the museum’s galleries to view her father’s Hall of Fame plaque and a current museum exhibition, Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City.
“This building and this institution, and the respect they give to the legacy of this music, means so very much to me and my entire family,” Cash said. “So it feels a little bit like coming home to me.”
Three weeks earlier, Cash opened the series with a start-to-finish live rendition of The River and the Thread—the first time she ever performed the album in its entirety, in sequence. Backed by a small, elegant combo led by Leventhal, Cash reminded everyone why the album has gathered so many awards and so much critical acclaim, filling out the powerful songs with background stories that led to their creation. She finished that first concert with a string of classic hits from her extensive recording catalog and with a few carefully chosen covers to fit the occasion.
For her second performance, she shared a stage with two dear, longtime friends: Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams, The roots-music queens sat on stools together in the style of an old-fashioned Nashville guitar pull, performing songs they’d written and sharing stories about each other. It was the first time the three of them had ever joined together for a concert. John Leventhal, once again, provided resonant guitar accompaniment.
“You guys, you just don’t know what you mean to me,” Harris had told her stage partners during that second Cash residency concert. “Your music is just so important to the journey of my life.”
Cash provided a calm anchor at center stage for each concert. She painstakingly told stories involving her history with Memphis and the South, about the Arkansas sharecropper homestead in eastern Arkansas that the Cash family moved to in 1935; the remarkable strength of her grandmother, Carrie Cash, who gave birth to seven children, at home with little pain medication, and who picked cotton and dealt with a husband who wasn’t always easy or kind; and the Civil War history of the Cash family, who had kin that fought on both the Union and Confederate sides, and a song she wrote inspired by two family members who were alive during that war.
Between the serious stories, Cash cracked sly jokes and kept the banter loose and friendly with her husband, in the way only a longtime couple can.
Kyle Young, chief executive officer of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, cited in his introduction how Cash had embraced the idea of the artist-in-residence program. “Each of her three concerts,” Young said, “has had a different set of guests and a different set of songs and were one-of-a-kind, never-to-be-seen-again performances.”
Presented once a year, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s artist-in-residence program is an honor bestowed only upon accomplished country artists who have produced a large and exemplary body of work with undeniable cultural impact. To these noteworthy artists, the museum offers a blank canvas for the creation of unique musical experiences that are often heightened by collaborations with others.
The residency series began in 2003 with Cowboy Jack Clement and has continued each year. Previous honorees have been Earl Scruggs, Tom T. Hall, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill, Buddy Miller, Connie Smith, Kenny Rogers, Ricky Skaggs, and Alan Jackson.
Near the end of her set, Cash thanked the museum “for the tremendous honor” of being artist-in-residence, adding, “It’s been one of the great experiences of my life.”