13th Annual Artist-In-Residence: Rosanne Cash: September 3, 2015

The lives and careers of Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, and Lucinda Williams have intersected for decades. But the three veterans had never shared a stage before—until Thursday night (September 3, 2015).

Cash recruited her fellow Southern roots-music queens for the second of her three concerts as the 2015 artist-in-residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. There were tears, simply because the principals were so happy to share the evening; there were stories, some that had never been told, and will never be told again; there was mutual praise a-plenty, as each testified as to how much inspiration she had derived from the others’ work; and, most of all, there was music, with all three women reaching deep inside themselves to find the core creative sparks that have made them such enduring American artists.

“The title of this show,” Cash quipped at the outset, “is ‘life is short, spend some time playing with your girlfriends.’” The trio played for a rapt, sold-out crowd of 800 in the museum’s CMA Theater. “We’ve done shows where we get up and sing with each other for a song,” Cash continued. “We talk backstage at events. We’ve been at festivals and have just missed seeing the other’s set. But we’ve never done a show, the three of us together. This is so special for us.”

Performing in the Nashville tradition of a guitar pull, the three women sat on stools in a line, at the front of the stage, with nothing but acoustic guitars and microphones. They were accompanied by Cash’s husband and producer, John Leventhal—“the band,” as she described him. Leventhal proved to be a master at knowing what each song needed, all the while drawing a rich, ringing tone from his six-string.

Cash presented songs that ranged from her first #1 hit, 1981’s “Seven Year Ache,” to several from her Grammy-winning album, 2014’s The River and the Thread. Harris chose songs from late in her career—“Red Dirt Girl,” “Ship on His Arm,” “Prayer in Open D,” “My Name Is Emmett Till,” “Michelangelo” “Boy from Tupelo”—rather than hits from her first three decades as an artist, when she built a reputation as one of America’s great song interpreters. When she focused on her own writing, her songs possessed a special weight and sense of personal revelation, exposing her in ways that her versions of songs by other writers don’t quite match.

After one Harris performance, Williams interjected, “Wow, God, that voice. What you can do at certain points, the octaves,” Williams threw her hands up, indicating she couldn’t put into words how much Harris’s voice moves her. Cash stepped in, saying, “It’s hard to take, isn’t it?” The crowd laughed along with the performers.  

Williams balanced songs from early, acclaimed albums—performing “Something About What Happens When We Talk” and “Sweet Old World,” both released in 1992—with yet-to-be-recorded songs, including “The Ghost of Highway 20” and a spiritual that Williams hasn’t named.

Cash and Harris have been close friends for thirty-five years. They have sat in on each other’s recording sessions. They have shared a primary creative collaborator in Rodney Crowell, and they occasionally have swapped band members. They have seen each other’s families start, expand, grow up, splinter. They have seen each other through incredible highs and devastating lows. They even have performed together, but only in brief walk-on spots, for a song or two. They never have sat next to each other performing an entire concert together.  

Cash told the audience of Harris visiting the studio when Cash recorded her first two albums, in 1979 and 1981, and how intimidating it was to be in the presence of her hero. “I spent the first five years of my career always trying to impress Emmylou,” Cash said. “It was an inspiration. She made me work harder and write better. I remember when I wrote a song for my second album (“Blue Moon with Heartache”), and she told me she liked it.”

For Cash, it was the best possible validation. Harris retorted, “I always have thought Rosanne is such an incredible writer,” Harris said. “I hear her songs and think she’s writing my life.” 

Cash and Harris have known Williams for twenty-five years, drawn to her because of the unusual emotion and depth in her songs. Harris has recorded Williams’s compositions. Cash has performed them live. Both have shared concert bills with her. Their love for each other’s work forged a friendship over the years. But Williams also had never performed an entire concert with either of her two friends.  

Williams, who has used Harris as a harmony singer on her recordings, recalled cutting a version of her 1998 song “Jackson,” with Harris on high harmony. Later, Williams decided the song worked better with a male harmony singer and used Jim Lauderdale on the finished track. When she asked Harris to join her for the live version Wednesday night, Harris quipped, “I better not mess up.”

Cash was born in Memphis and grew up in Southern California; Harris started out in Birmingham, Alabama, the daughter of a military intelligence officer, and spent time developing her musical direction in Maryland and the District of Columbia. She, too, eventually landed in Southern California, arriving a couple of years before Cash returned to Tennessee.

Williams, a native of Lake Charles, Louisiana, moved around the South—to Athens, Georgia; to Jackson, Mississippi; to Austin, Texas—before she, too, found her way to Los Angeles. Williams resided in Nashville for a few years in the late 1990s, before settling down back in L.A.

The women share vagabond roots and musical influences: They were drawn to the lyrical power of country music; to the deep roots and stark spirituality of Appalachian-inspired folk music; to the tight musical arrangements and catchy hooks of pop music; and to the propulsive power and swagger of roots rock. Williams, in particular, also drew on the deep blues of the Mississippi Delta in her early work, and on electric Chicago blues in more recent years.

“You guys, you just don’t know what you mean to me,” Harris told her stage partners near the end of the program. “The songs, what they’ve given me. Your music is just so important to the journey of my life.”

You’re the queen,” Cash replied, as if nothing Harris could say would equal the inspiration Cash and Williams have received from Harris’s groundbreaking albums.

The connection the women felt with each other eventually got to Williams. Talking about how remarkable it felt to spend an evening swapping songs with her heroes, Williams said, “It’s so emotional. I’ve done a lot of writers-in-the-round like this, and I think I can speak for Rosanne and Emmy…”

At that point, Williams stopped, too choked up to speak. She finally apologized and said, “It’s just all of us together up here…it’s something spiritual.” She then laughed and asked for some Kleenex.  

During one of two encore songs, the women performed Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” a song Harris recorded prior to the hit version by Willie Nelson. Before beginning, Harris recalled a famous statement Van Zandt made about popular music. “There’s the blues,” he said, “and there’s ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.’” Harris confessed to liking the song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” but said she understood what Van Zandt meant.

“Really, any song that really touches your heart is a blues song,” Harris explained. “So what we’ve been doing tonight are blues songs.”

Indeed, all three tapped into the emotional center of the blues, as the women sang about suicide, racist-inspired murder, and cheating partners as well as about their roots, their families, the spark of new love, the depth of enduring love, and the transcendent power of spiritual love.

As the show was about to end, Cash thanked the crowd and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for the opportunity to create the two unique and powerful concerts she performed over two nights.

“It’s been an incredible honor to be the artist-in-residence for this institution, in this magnificent structure, and with this wonderful staff, who have curated one of the most incredible collections in the world,” Cash said. “It’s a world-class museum, and we’re so lucky to have it. I’m so grateful that so many of my own family’s artifacts and history are in the archives here, for safekeeping forever and ever.”

Cash returns September 24 for her third and final artist-in-residence concert. The show will move to the 213-seat Ford Theater, for a night featuring Cash and Leventhal in collaboration. It is sold out.

—Michael McCall