'A Wider Landscape'

Rosanne Cash
The News-Gazette

By Melissa Merli 

Singer, songwriter and guitarist Rosanne Cash, 59, was born in Memphis, the eldest daughter of country music legend Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian Liberto. She has recorded 15 albums, including two that were certified gold — "Seven Year Ache" (1981) and "King's Record Shop" ('87). Twenty-one of her songs were Top 40 country singles; 11 climbed to the No. 1 spot.

She has received numerous honors and awards, including 12 Grammy nominations, winning one in 1985 for "I Don't Know Why You Don't Want Me."

She has published four books, and her essays and fiction have appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone and New York magazine, among other publications.

Her latest album, "The River & The Thread," was released in January by Blue Note Records and is being hailed as a masterwork. She and her full band, including musical director John Leventhal, her husband and musical collaborator, will perform songs from "River & The Thread" as well as others in concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

The performer took time out of her busy schedule for a telephone interview earlier this week:

How would you describe "The River & The Thread" — an exploration of your Southern heritage?

That's the most simplistic explanation. It's not just looking at the past. It's not just bowing to Southern music roots forms. It's full of geography, which I really love, and a lot of third-person songs. It's not just about me and my journey.

John kept encouraging me when we were writing this record to write about other people too. So there are songs about other people and their experiences in life — even people I don't know like the ones I made up for "Night School." "When the Master Calls the Roll" is about my real Civil War ancestors. It's not just me, my feelings, my past and future. It's a much wider landscape than that.

How long have you and John been collaborating?

The first record we made was in 1993, "The Wheel." This ("River & the Thread") is the first album that has been a complete collaboration where we wrote all the songs together. He produced and arranged it too. I told him his picture should be on the cover too, but he said "No, just put me inside."

What was the impetus for making "River & the Thread"? Was it the University of Arkansas' restoration of your father's childhood home in Dyess, Ark.?

It wasn't that simple. There were a lot of trips down South not just because of the Arkansas project. We went down there a few times for that because we were involved with fundraising and following its progress. But there were other trips too.

We went down Highway 61 into Mississippi, Alabama, Appalachia. At some point, John said, "You know, there's something here we could write about." The first two songs we wrote were "Etta's Tune" and "The Sunken Lands," and then we saw what we were doing. We didn't go down there with the intent of making a record. I don't think it would have worked out if we had gone down there with that intent. It was the perfect storm of inspiration.

Are you satisfied with the album?

I'm more than satisfied. I think it's our best work, for both of us. I don't think I could have gotten to it without what I've done before. I live with this sense of urgency about doing the kind of work I want to do. You reach for your best songs your whole life. I think we made the best, and it's a huge plus that it's been accepted so wonderfully.

What projects are you working on now?

I'm working on singing these songs live. We're really intensely involved with that. We made an 18-month commitment to getting the record out and performing it live. We're halfway through it. I'm also writing prose pieces. I just wrote one for National Geographic about the Dyess Colony. We're not talking about the next record yet. We're still enjoying and committed to playing these songs live.

Who will you bring with you to your show at Krannert Center?

It's a full-band show, with my regular band. It's a great, great band. I think people will love this band. I love being a member of a band. It's not just me and a backup band — we're melded together. John is musical director, so we get to really flesh out what we did on the record.

Will you cover "Ode to Billy Joe"? Did you know Bobbie Gentry?

Yes, we will. I never knew Bobbie Gentry. But I narrated a documentary for BBC Radio 2 called "Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry?" She really doesn't want to be found.

Are there any "new country" artists you like?

You mean commercial country? You know, I've lived in New York City for 25 years. I don't know much about that scene any more. I got to know Dierks Bentley a little bit and thought he was just wonderful — that was a revelation. There are a lot of people in the Americana field I really like, like this new band St. Paul and The Broken Bones (a seven-piece soul band based in Birmingham, Ala.) who are fantastic. And Parker Millsap — he's great. (Millsap, a nominee for the Americana Music Association Emerging Act of the Year award, will perform along with Cash and others at the association's awards show Sept. 17 at Ryman Auditorium. Cash is up for three awards: album, artist and song of the year.)

What's the best advice you received from your mother? And from your father?

She didn't like the music business. She had a lot of fear and anxiety about my life. She worried about everything from the travel to the singing. She really did instill in me a strong sense of self-discipline, though. Just how to order your life in a graceful way. I'm really glad I got that from her.

My father had no anxiety about this lifestyle because he did it for so many decades. His work ethic was very powerful so I got that from him, I think.

You've made references to your audiences being different now than in the '80s. What did you mean?

A lot of them are my age but I do see all ages from teens up to grandparents. That is really lovely. I love playing to multi-generations. What's really exciting is a lot of people are coming to see me because of this record. They don't necessarily know my older stuff. It's really thrilling for John and me.

What was your three-day residency like in December at the Library of Congress?

It was amazing. I did three shows. One was a show with my band. One was a songwriter show to which I invited two other songwriters — Cory Chisel and Rodney Crowell (Cash's ex-husband). The theme was Southern roots music so it was all connected. In the third show, I interviewed U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey about the similarities and differences between writing poetry and writing songs. And I did a long interview for the American Folklike Center. It was a great honor.

How do you feel about being a recipient of a Smithsonian Magazine American Ingenuity Award (to be handed out Oct. 16 in Washington, D.C.)?

That's really exciting and kind of overwhelming.