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Music Has Southern Roots, but Lyrics May Travel

03.19.14
The New York Times

Rosanne Cash at Town Hall

By Jon Pareles

An eight-member band, with as many as four guitars upfront, rarely sounds as serenely contained as Rosanne Cash’s concert did on Tuesday night at Town Hall. Ms. Cash started the concert performing all 11 songs from her superb new album, “The River & the Thread” (Blue Note), her first collection of new material since “Black Cadillac” in 2006. The music is understated; the ideas are large.

In personal, sometimes cryptic ways, Ms. Cash’s new songs contemplate the South: the roots of Ms. Cash’s father, Johnny Cash, and of her music, although she has lived in New York City since the 1990s. They hold thoughts of family, history, memory, geography, faith, traveling and what it means to be home.

The Southern sense of place comes through the music, written by John Leventhal, her husband and guitarist, who thoughtfully invokes Appalachian fiddle tunes, Delta blues, Memphis rockabilly and back-porch country picking. It also comes through in Ms. Cash’s lyrics, in which the singer traverses Arkansas (where Johnny Cash was born), Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama, as well as Spain and France (though they lead her back to Memphis, her birthplace). “You thought you’d left it all behind/You thought you’d up and gone,” she sang. “But all you did was figure out/How to take the long way home.”

Ms. Cash offered some of the back story for the songs. One, “When the Master Calls the Roll,” was a Civil War story, which ends with a husband returning to stay in the Virginia hills “six feet under”; Ms. Cash noted that she had ancestors who fought for the Union and the Confederacy. She noted that “Tell Heaven” was written to recognize the South’s gospel heritage without praising God; instead, it’s a quiet gem about a universal need for comfort.

Those guitars, along with David Mansfield’s fiddle and mandolin, were onstage for detail, not muscle: to mesh sliding and picking in the bluesy “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” to set up twangy syncopation and spooky, hovering tones in “The Long Way Home,” to share a cozy shuffle in “50,000 Watts.” Played as a group — the way people used to listen to albums — the songs became a larger cycle: not a narrative but a collection of characters and inquiries, pondering how the past lingers.

The hushed transparency the band brought to the album continued with the older songs in the concert’s second half: in a delicate “Blue Moon With Heartache” and “Western Wall,” and in “Ode to Billie Joe” and “Long Black Veil,” played as duets with Mr. Leventhal. (Playing at Town Hall, Ms. Cash noted the “town hall lights” mentioned in “Long Black Veil.”) But the band also stirred up some rowdiness in a bluesy reworking of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” and in Johnny Cash’s toe-tapping “Tennessee Flat Top Box.” The music was often calm but never complacent; it was centered, as if it had found its home.