Curiosity and Humility
Rosanne Cash and husband/collaborator John Leventhal bring a complex musical atlas of the American South to The Broad Stage
By Bliss Bowen
Over the past two years, as recording artists have seen their revenue and livelihoods diminished by paradigm changes wrought by newly entrenched streaming models, Rosanne Cash has been an outspoken advocate of artists’ rights in the digital world. She raises an authoritative voice in that particular debate — and in any discussion of artistry, songwriting and creativity.
In 2014 she gave eloquent testimony before the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee regarding intellectual property rights; last April she was part of an event with the Content Creators Coalition announcing the Fair Play, Fair Pay Act of 2015 in Congress — which, if passed, will establish “simple remedies” for fairer compensation for artists. During an airport layover, she acknowledges with a rueful laugh that passage will take a long time, but hopes are high since most of the congressional panel was clearly supportive.
That marked a singular instance of anything resembling political amity on the Hill. Cash’s substantive presence likely helped. Cash, who turned 60 last May, has a deserved reputation as a thoughtful, soulful writer; when she speaks, her words carry the weight of considered observation.
After coming of age around iconic artists, she topped the country charts and won a vocal Grammy — then confounded industry expectations by leaving Nashville for Manhattan, where she gradually clawed her way back to greater respect and acclaim as a singer-songwriter rooted in the freer landscape of Americana. She is part of a post-Joni, genre-blending generation of singer-songwriters, along with Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams, who have become widely exalted sources of inspiration to other women artists.
Her most recent album, 2014’s “The River & the Thread,” which won three Grammy awards, time-travels back to the Civil War as well as midcentury Arkansas and other points throughout the South. Written with husband, producer and invaluable creative collaborator John Leventhal, its evocative storytelling is cradled in Southern blues, Appalachian folk and gospel.
Last September, Leventhal was honored by the Americana Music Association with its Instrumentalist of the Year award; in October, Cash was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
The couple, who fell in love while recording 1993’s “The Wheel” and have made five albums since, will perform songs from “The River & the Thread” as well as “older stuff” as an acoustic duo at the Broad Stage this Saturday.
“We looove doing that show,” she says. “We love it. It’s so intimate, and really fun.”
Cash, who recently re-signed with Blue Note Records, says she and Leventhal are currently writing music and lyrics for a play that she estimates will be announced in the next couple of months. (“It’s really exciting … it definitely expands on traditional roots music.”) It’s another example of how she has hit her stride with the co-writing process. She co-wrote three songs with T-Bone Burnett and Lera Lynn for the TV show “True Detective,” and she and Leventhal recently met with Sir Elton John for an out-of-left-field co-writing session. Elvis Costello’s recently released “Unfaithful Music and Soundtrack Album” features “April 5th,” a heart-melting track he, Cash and Leventhal composed with Kris Kristofferson.
“In the last five years I’ve really gotten more comfortable [with co-writing],” Cash allows, “particularly with writing the whole album with John, ‘The River & the Thread.’ I realized, I guess, that you can take advantage of another person’s strengths and bring your strengths to it and let go a little bit. It’s always interesting to see how other people want to co-write too. The way Elton wants to co-write is different from the way Joe Henry and I wrote and Rhett Miller, Cory Chisel and I wrote a song together.”
Some artists, like Bruce Springsteen, need to get to know their songs’ characters in order to tell their stories. For Cash, whose writing is stimulated by visual art, a strong sense of physical place often helps her determine how to frame stories and narrow broad ideas to specific scenarios.
“I love geography, and geography becomes like a character to me,” she explains. “Like ‘Money Road’ is a haunted, haunted place with this powerful and dark history. That is so visceral so it does come through like a personality. And Memphis is different than Philadelphia; it’s different than Paris. It’s got its own kind of resonance. … When I wrote ‘I Was Watching You’ on [2006 album] ‘Black Cadillac,’ it just started with this picture of headlights on a road. So I thought, ‘I’m going to follow that, what is that about?’
I sat at the piano and it started unfolding like a little movie.”
The songs on “The River & the Thread” are textured with details amassed from journeys Cash and Leventhal made through the South — travels that deepened Cash’s understanding of her Southern heritage, with all its rich cultural complexity. “Money Road,” for instance, is informed by a visit they made to bluesman Robert Johnson’s all but unmarked grave and another stop not far away at the site of Emmitt Till’s gruesome 1955 lynching.
The history of division and distrust of the perceived “other” is not unique to the South; yet Southerners are uniquely positioned to speak with authority about co-existing amid diverse beliefs and ancestries, and finding common ground from which to resolve differences. That heritage is at once distinctively Southern and inextricably American. Understanding its duality can spark flashes of insight as successive generations grapple with its implications; that’s needed wisdom in the wake of the Charleston (and numerous other) shootings, not to mention this chaotically charged election season.
“I have embraced my Southern lineage, and I didn’t for a long time,” allows Cash, who’s lived in Manhattan for two decades. “You know, there’s so much suffering and so much beauty … you have to accept its duality and not polarize ourselves. With this record, I didn’t want to point at either. I didn’t want to say, ‘Look, isn’t this bad,’ or ‘Look, this is wonderful, this is the way that it is.’
It’s both, and the complexity is really riveting to me.
“It’s polarization that’s dangerous. We’re all both dark and light. I mean, that’s one thing that I did get in touch with more traveling down South when I was writing this record. I knew I was a white privileged person. And I acknowledge the suffering of black people in the South and I have compassion for that. But it really sunk in in a much deeper way, being in Mississippi, particularly. It was so humbling, and to meet some of these old blues musicians and see that I’m borrowing from their tradition, and I get all this attention and they get none — it was very humbling.”
Cash’s heritage, of course, includes her membership in the Carter Family — bona fide country music royalty. As the eldest daughter of Johnny Cash and stepdaughter of June Carter Cash, she lives with a weird strain of inherited celebrity DNA that’s a particular challenge for artists who legitimately earn renown for their own achievements. She’s earned reams of accolades for her albums as well as her 1997 collection of short stories, “Bodies of Water,” and her beautifully written memoir, 2010’s “Composed.” (She’s also authored a children’s book, 2006’s “Penelope Jane: A Fairy’s Tale.”) “Composed” was distinguished by her graceful refusal to dish about her famous relatives; she focused instead on her development as an artist, a choice that gave the book more depth and enduring value.
“I wanted to be able to look at myself in the mirror in the morning,” she observes. “I didn’t want to hurt anyone, and I have a very strong sense of privacy. That’s an odd thing for a person in public life to say, but I do.”
In 2009, she released “The List,” a dozen songs culled from a list of 100 “essential” country and folk songs her father had given her to learn so she could better understand country music, and her lineage. It was an unusual album (“an anomaly”) for Cash, who has long since established her identity as an original artist outside of country’s bounds. If she were to make such a list now for her daughters, or for other women who look up to her as a creative mentor, what songs — and advice — might she include?
“Well, I am making a list like that for my own kids,” she says. “I have maybe 15 or 20 songs on the list right now. The advice … [Pause] Wow.
“It’s been a long, complicated, sometimes excruciating path for me. And for every woman. I think that having your own agency is key. Owning authority in yourself. And listening to the sometimes tiny inner voice that says what’s right for you, what kind of songs you want to write. … At some point you achieve some mastery over what you do, and if you can remain a beginner, then that’s key — a student [of life], with the curiosity and excitement of, What’s next? What am I going to write next?
“Curiosity. That’s what it means to be a beginner. Curiosity and humility. Get in your painting studio and start painting some songs.”
Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 12, at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $55 to $85. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit rosannecash.com.