“This whole year has been a real highlight of my life,” said Rosanne Cash at the very end of our phone call during the very end of 2015. “I just feel so lucky that at this point in my life, people still notice or care!”
I was quick to remind the songwriter that people are still listening and caring because Cash may very well be currently creating the most vital work of her entire almost 40-year-long career. Proof: Her 2014 album The River and The Thread, which was universally acclaimed, racking up Grammys and glowing reviews.
Beyond the awards show buzz – which undoubtedly played into her 2015 induction into the Nashville Hall of Fame, more on that later – this was an album that was truly quietly, personally moving for listeners, including for the listener typing this sentence. It's obvious that The River and The Thread is an exploration of the legacies and lands that shape us. And to write it, the longtime New Yorker had to return to the South to explore the heritage of the music she plays, and to get back to the people who made her. Yes, her father Johnny Cash makes lyrical appearances, but so does Etta, the widow of Tennessee Three's bassist and Cash manager Marshall Grant (in “Etta's Tune”; much more on that later, too), and Emmett Till and, of course, the almighty Mississippi.
(Note: Cash is a prodigous writer of prose, in addition to songs. We spent the bulk of our conversation talking about essays she's written lately to accompany The River and The Thread. I encourage you to read her piece for Oxford American in particular. It's a spectacular companion to her album, and a source of more than a few delightful Johnny anecdotes.)
Cash plays the Palladium this Friday.
NUVO: You wrote in a piece for the New York Times several years ago about several deaths that happened to you in a row. You mentioned the death of Kurt Vonnegut, and that although he wasn't a close friend of yours, his wife is. As the city of Vonnegut – he wrote so often about Hoosiers and we think of him so warmly – I wonder if you could talk about your relationship with him and his wife. Are you drawn to his work?
Rosanne Cash: I loved Kurt. Even more than me, my husband John [Leventhal] loved Kurt. I got Kurt to sign a book to him one year for Christmas and you know, that was like his favorite thing ever.
Kurt was … [pauses] – I remember one night, he and Jill [Krementz, Kurt's widow] and I went to this book launch party for Kurt Anderson at this trendy restaurant in the Village. We went down together and were walking from the car and Joel said something about how I had gotten a town car, and I said, “Oh, yes, I'm a sybarite.” And Kurt snapped his head towards me and said, “You don't look like a lesbian.” [laughs] He was so quick and so acerbic.
He came to a Christmas party one year and he asked for a Scotch. And Jill followed after John and said, “Make it a small one!” And John was like, “The man is my guest! What am I supposed to do?” He did enjoy his Scotch.
NUVO: A Vonnegut quote that I think of often is, “I don't know what it is about Hoosiers. But wherever you go, there is always a Hoosier doing something very important there.” You've famously recorded with John Hiatt – are there any other Hoosiers that I would be surprised to know have crossed your musical landscape?
NUVO: I loved your piece for the Oxford American ("Long Way Home," November 23, 2013). Part of it was because you were so obviously digging into different memories. As you've done the emotional work digging in to make this new album and write the different pieces you've published, what's the most surprising thing you've recalled about your youth, listening to music with your family?
Cash: It wasn't so much about me making albums and me creating music, but just small things. Like the fact that there was a trolley car system in Memphis when I was born. They didn't have a car – my mother must have taken that trolley a lot when she would go down to Wollworth's to meet Etta Grant to have a Coke and shop for lipstick. So I got pictures of the trolley cars. There's one that's almost identical, and I went on it. That was really cool. Going to my dad's boyhood home, of course. [Cash helped restore her father's boyhood home in collaboration with Arkansas State University.] I wrote this piece about it that's in the current United Airlines magazine and I said that it's as close to time travel as I'll ever get. To visit my father's childhood, and see the beds made up, and the pots and pans on the stove, exactly as it was – how often do you get to do that? That was startling and very, very moving. To realize something I didn't realize about Memphis, too: I knew that there was soul music going on, and rockabilly, and rock and roll and the blues. I didn't realize that Tommy Dorsey was also playing right down the street, and that that was a huge part of the music scene as well.
Going into Mississippi, that was just so heavy. To go to the places where all of the great blues musicians played, to feel how much I owed them. And also, it was very humbling to realize how much black musicians suffered in the South in the '20s, '30s, '40s and '50s. There was so much suffering. And I think that white people have to acknowledge our role in that, and to acknowledge the debt we owe them for the music. It has seeded all roots music and pop music, as well. I don't think the acknowledgment is given as much as it should be.
The Cash family on the front porch of the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home, which Rosanne helped restore
Historic Dyess Colony, Johnny Cash Boyhood Home,
NUVO: You wrote a whole album about coming back to the South. And you were honored by the South in a big way, after being added to the Nashville Songwriters' Hall of Fame [last] year. You also left the South in a big way, moving north, to New York decades ago. What's the emotional journey of coming back to the South? Writing about it, coming back to Nashville, being honored by the Songwriters' Hall of Fame. Has there been any internal conflict?
Cash: Not anymore. There was, and even 15 years ago I don't think that I could have been comfortable with it. I had to get a lot of distance and a lot of time apart from the South to really love and appreciate it again, and allow myself to feel how deep the connection is. I just didn't want any part in it. It felt suffocating to me. Not just the music industry, but just being in the South seemed suffocating. Now I go back, and I don't feel suffocated. I feel these deep connections of family and musical ancestry, and real ancestry. Some places in the South are haunted. Haunted with beauty, music, history. Of course there's violence and deep suffering. There's also beauty, and some of the greatest literature ever written, some of the greatest music ever made. I think that the way in people in middle age come to terms with who they are, who their family is, where they're from – I think that happened to me in several ways. Not just emotionally, but musically, ancestrally. It's good. There's a unity you feel in yourself that happens once you get past yourself.
My mom and Etta became like the closest of sisters. They were always together, and then when Dad, Luther, and Marshall went on the road, Mom and Etta were close companions and a two-woman support group. When Dad and the Tennessee Two started performing in the area around Memphis, Dad would leave my mom and me and later Kathy at the Nakomis house with Etta. We’d go to bed, and Dad would come to get us after the show, late at night or in the early morning hours, to take us home to Tutwiler, then to a new house on Sandy Cove, and then eventually to an even nicer house on Walnut Grove. Marshall said he always thought I was asleep when Dad lifted me onto his shoulder, but then he’d see my little hand pat Daddy’s back as we walked to the car. I suppose I already knew that a touring musician had a hard life.
— Rosanne Cash, "Long Way Home"
NUVO: I love "Etta's Song" on this record. I really enjoyed reading in your piece for the Oxford American about your mother and Etta's relationship, and how their friendship was challenged, how the drama of men [Johnny and Marshall, who fought legal batters] was playing out on the national stage, but there was this smaller but no less important drama playing out in this relationship as well. It's an unequal world. Tell me about telling those women's stories.
Cash: You know, my mom and dad's divorce was almost equally as painful for my mom and Etta. There was this natural separation that had to happen. It had to happen. It was a terrible loss for both of them. I still talk to Etta; in fact, I'm going to call her tomorrow. And she always starts with stories of my mother. She wants to go over all the old stories, and it's always about my mother. I don't think that sadness ever left either one of them. And there was just no way to find their way back to each other. It lasted for a particular time, and then it was over. It was just tremendously sad.
The stories of the women, because I'm a woman, they interest me more, too. What did the women do when these men were gone? How did they handle the babies and the homes? Their relationships? The loneliness?
NUVO: Just before I called, I was reading an interview with Lera Lynn where she talked about working with you [on True Detective], and how it was a dream come true.
Cash: [sighs contentedly] That's nice.
NUVO: Could you talk to me about some young women musicians whose work you find powerful? What new music is powerful and true to you?
Cash: Lera and I never met until after the songs were finished, recorded, out there. It was all done through T Bone [Burnett], because T Bone and I are old friends, and he asked me to write the lyrics. He asked me to write the lyrics for True Detective, but he kind of did it backwards. He said [musing], “Write some lyrics about you know, a woman whose lover turns into a bird ...” And I said, “Sure!” So I'd write some music and send it to him, and he and Lera would write the music. Lera would record it on the spot, then I would get it back, and then we'd do the next one. We did three that way.
I never really met her. We emailed a few times, then she came to this show I did at the Country Music Hall of Fame when I played with Emmylou [Harris] and Lucinda [Williams] and we met backstage for the first time. That was September. I just thought, “Oh my god, this girl has such a great voice, and the way she plays guitar is, like, seamless. Very dark and soulful.” I like her a lot. Other young women? I like Cary Ann Hearst [of Shovels and Rope]. She's just fantastic. Alabama Shakes, Brittany [Howard], is just beyond great. She's really inspiring to me too, in the way she just puts it out there. Other young women: Amy Cook. She's a really good songwriter. The Unthanks? I love them. Love them.