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  • By Alan Richard


Updated: Aug 1, 2021

Rosanne Cash told the audience at the Ryman Auditorium how she’d spent 40 years mostly avoiding playing her father’s songs. But the opportunity to play a series of shows with her friend and Ry Cooder in tribute to Johnny Cash finally convinced her otherwise.

On June 16 (Father’s Day), the Nashville show drew the likes of Ricky Skaggs, John Hiatt (my favorite songwriter) and others who filled the Mother Church of Country Music. Singer-songwriter-guitarist-producer Buddy Miller sat just in front of me in a section on the Ryman’s main floor. I joked that he belonged on stage, but he said he’d enjoy taking this one in.

Rosanne Cash’s own music, new and old, has more than proven her own immense talents, of course. Seeing her with guitar wizard Cooder, who has backed the Rolling Stones and many others and is an unrivaled interpreter of the most complex early blues and gospel music, was an incredible treat.

The duo opened with “Understand Your Man,” from 1964’s I Walk the Line album, with Rosanne Cash on lead vocals and Cooder adding a swinging, jazzy guitar solo. Cash’s husband and musical partner, John Leventhal, also played guitar and served as bandleader.

Cooder sang lead on a straightforward, country-shuffle version of Cowboy Jack Clement's “I Guess Things Happen That Way,” from Cash’s 1958 Sun Records sessions in Memphis. My mother remembers the tune well from her childhood.

Rosanne Cash resurrected her wonderful remake of her father’s 1961 single “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” which she recorded for her excellent 1987 record, King's Record Shop. Her version hit No. 1 on the country charts. I’ve always thought the original was so appealingly raw musically and vivid in its storytelling.

Cooder then strapped on the actual guitar, perhaps a Fender Jazzmaster, played by original Tennessee Two guitarist Luther Perkins on those early Sun recordings. Cooder picked the guitar on several numbers, starting with the Sun classic, “Hey Porter.”

One of the best moments of the evening came when Cooder’s son, drummer and percussionist Joaquin Cooder, began a shuffling, funky beat, and his father joined in with a dark, poignant version of the 1958 hit ,“Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” about a young cowboy but also Cooder’s progressive views on guns:

"A hundred and twenty years have passed and nothin's really changed

A young man on the city streets, he has to make his name

He's still too young to know a gun can't make a boy a man

And his mama cries as he walks out,

'Don't take your guns to town son

Leave your guns at home, Bill

Don't take your guns to town'."

Cash and Cooder then dug up Johnny’s more obscure “Hardin Wouldn't Run," which Rosanne remarked was one of her favorite story-songs written by her father, from the western-themed 1965 concept album, Sings the Ballads of the West.

Before singing “Home of the Blues,” which Johnny Cash recorded in 1957, Cooder recognized Buck White (who with his daughters formed The Whites, known for their stellar homespun harmonies as featured in the film, Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?). I believe Buck White stood for the applause, although it was too dark in the auditorium for me to see.

Again picking Luther Perkins’ guitar, Cooder played an upbeat, traditional version of “Get Rhythm.” Cooder introduced the 1959 Sun Records-era classic by recalling a visit from Johnny Cash after Cooder had covered the song on his 1987 album of the same title. The Man in Black had greeted Cooder, of course, by saying: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

Rosanne Cash and Cooder then performed a wonderful, plodding version of “I Walk the Line.” Originally released in 1957, the song slowly began to rock to Mark Fain's fine performance on bass, with Cooder adding slide guitar.

Cash sang an especially reverent version of “I Still Miss Someone,” with guitar parts by both Cooder and Leventhal. It was even better than Cash’s heartfelt performance of the same track back in March at the Ryman concert celebrating the forthcoming Ken Burns Country Music documentary.

Cooder told the audience that as a youngster in Santa Monica, Calif.--then a much quieter place, no doubt--that he'd found Johnny Cash’s music raw and exciting.

“He was moving. He was going places,” Cooder said, before starting with only his guitar and his own vocals on the devastating track originally released in 1960, “Give My Love to Rose":

"I found him by the railroad track this morning

I could see that he was nearly dead

I knelt down beside him and I listened

Just to hear the words the dying fellow said

He said they let me out of prison down in Frisco

For 10 long years I've paid for what I've done

I was trying to get back to Louisiana

To see my Rose and get to know my son

Give my love to Rose please won't you mister

Take her all my money, tell her to buy some pretty clothes

Tell my boy his daddy's so proud of him

And don't forget to give my love to Rose ...

Mister here's a bag with all my money

It won't last them long, the way it goes

God bless you for finding me this morning

And don't forget to give my love to Rose ..."

The Long Black Veil,” written and released by country legend Lefty Frisell in 1959 and covered hauntingly by Johnny Cash in 1965, featured Cooder on electric mandolin. Rosanne Cash sung lead, repeating her treatment of the song from her 2009 album of her father’s favorite songs, The List. (Story continues below photo.)

Cooder seemed to treasure singing “Big River” for the finale ("cavortin' in Davenport"), followed by a slow, smoldering version of “Ring of Fire” (written byJune Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore) for the encore. Leventhal played Perkins’ yellow guitars on the final number, and Cash and Cooder harmonized beautifully.

Cash noted that her father would always end his shows with a gospel song in tribute to his mother. She did the same, saluting her grandmother, wherever she may be, with the Merle Travis-penned gospel number often sung by Johnny Cash, “I Am a Pilgrim.”

Here’s hoping the show was recorded. These two would make a wonderful live (or studio) album together. On this night, Johnny and June must have been smiling wide and cutting up a rug.

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