13th Annual Artist-In-Residence: Rosanne Cash

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.”

—Michael McCall

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

September 2, 2015

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.

--Michael McCall