Long among the most cosmopolitan of country singers, Rosanne Cash has decided to explore her Southern roots. The fruits of Cash’s excursion, a fabulous new record heavy on Dixie themes called “The River and the Thread,” fueled her rocking and fun Valentine’s Day show at Lisner Auditorium.
Cash was born in Memphis in 1955, just as her father, Johnny Cash, was kick-starting the rockabilly phase of his career. But the family headed for Hollywood when she was a toddler, and in her memoir Cash talked about falling in with a surfer crowd at the Catholic high school she attended in Ventura. She fell into her father’s line of work immediately upon graduation, but her early albums teemed with the introspection and, well, mopeyness, that was common in the Southern California country-ish rock of the 1970s and had few traces of the music of the Deep South. Her Southern bona fides have been further eroded by living in New York City for more than two decades.
But at 58, Cash has taken to flaunting her birthplace environs, and she and her backing quintet performed the new song cycle in its entirety, same song order and all, to open the almost two-hour show. In introducing “Money Road,” highlighted by a rocking solo duel between husband/bandleader John Leventhal and second guitarist Kevin Barry, Cash spoke of spending a lazy, beautiful afternoon sitting with a guitar on the Tallahatchie Bridge near Money, Miss. She wrote “Tell Heaven,” which featured Leventhal’s swampy, heavy-on-the-tremolo licks, as a “gospel song agnostics could love.” “The Long Way Home” was like a Lucinda Williams work, minus the wrist-slashing vibe. “When the Master Calls the Roll” was a story song about a young Civil War couple whose marital plans are waylaid by a “rifle ball and a cannon blast.” (Speaking of civil, Cash co-wrote the song with her ex-husband, Rodney Crowell.) The fans received the fresh material as warmly as they would old favorites.
Cash, who wears her re-Dixiefication well and looked youthful and blissed out from first note to last, returned from a post-album intermission with a set of familiarities. She took a trip back to the Tallahatchie Bridge for Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 verse-verse-verse opus, “Ode to Billy Joe.” She also rendered several covers she’d recorded for “The List,” a 2009 record of her father’s favorites. Among them: Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On”; the traditional song famously sung by Daddy, “Long Black Veil”; and “Girl From the North Country,” a song Bob Dylan performed with her father on the “Nashville Skyline” LP and on his TV show.
But Cash mostly stayed away from the hyper-personal downers from her own back pages. A couple of exceptions: Near show’s end, Cash performed “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,” a fine pity-me ditty that, she confessed with some giggles, was inspired not by romantic heartbreak but by not winning a Grammy she’d been nominated for. And before “Blue Moon With Heartache,” Cash expressed amazement that she’d written the tune, which is full of jaded lines such as, “Lately even dreaming feels like old reality,” when she was 23. But, as this night’s sweet, satisfying set proved, she was so much older then, and she’s, you know, younger than that now.
McKenna is a freelance writer.