ROSANNE CASH'S NEW SONGS, AND A soulFUL surprisE
Updated: Aug 1, 2021
Rosanne Cash brought her beautiful and smart music to Atlanta on April 6, sprinkling a wide-ranging set of her older songs and classic country covers with cuts from her new album, She Remembers Everything, which she called “the most personal songs I’ve written in a long time.”
Cash began her show at Midtown Atlanta’s cozy Center Stage Theater with songs from her best and most literary album (and one of my all-time favorites), The River and the Thread, from 2014. She led with the first three songs from that evocative record, which won three Grammy Awards, "all songs about the American South,” Cash said.
She began with “A Feather’s Not a Bird," which speaks of travels to the very musical area of Florence-Muscle Shoals in Alabama. Then Cash described how the album's second cut, "Sunken Lands," is about her paternal grandmother, who had remembered five cans of paint awaiting the family when they moved into a house in 1935 at the poor farmers’ settlement of remote Dyess Colony, Arkansas.
“She said when she moved into her home, it was redemption,” Cash said.
The third song, “Etta’s Tune,” is a tribute to her father’s original and longtime bass player, Marshall Grant, and his wife Etta, who endured decades of marriage to a traveling musician. Each day, the song tells us, Marshall would awaken and greet Etta by saying, “What’s the temperature, darlin’?”
'She Remembers Everything'
Cash then turned to her powerful new album with “The Undiscovered Country,” which cites “Shakespeare and my father” as influences. Like several songs to follow, Cash sang a portion backed only by husband, producer, and songwriting partner John Leventhal’s intimate acoustic guitar, rather than her full band. The same was true on the hymn-like “Crossing to Jerusalem,” a song that shows Cash's maturing vulnerability in her voice as she reflects on mortality while insisting that even death is “nothing we can’t bear.”
Leventhal took Matt Rollings’ spot at piano for the stunning “Everyone But Me,” about loss and finding your own voice. This song reminds me of my own late grandparents, the latter of whom died last fall, as Cash sings of her own losses: “Mother and father, now that you’re gone, it’s not nearly long enough, but somehow seems too long.”
The crowd and Cash's band seemed to get into the more upbeat tunes “Not Many Miles to Go” and “The Only Thing Worth Fighting For,” the album’s opening track which kicked off the second season of HBO’s True Detective series.
Cash's most passionate singing of the night was on the new album's title track, "She Remembers Everything," a bold statement about believing women, when society often still doesn't.
Essential 'American' music
Cash also returned to her own roots--and indeed those of American music. Her record The List was inspired by her father's list of his 100 essential songs in country music, better described as essential “American music,” she said, that connects many different styles.
She and Leventhal played alone on one of those tunes, “Long Black Veil,” made famous by 1950s country star Lefty Frizzell and covered brilliantly by her father, and “Sea of Heartbreak,” popularized by Don Gibson and performed by Cash and Bruce Springsteen on The List.
Cash brought the house down when she and Leventhal played Bobby Gentry’s 1967 classic, “Ode to Billie Joe.” The song, of course, is about a boy jumping from the Tallahatchie River bridge (disturbingly, after throwing something in the river) and the girl he left behind. (I wished Cash also had performed “The Long Way Home,” about her father's departure and return to the South and her own wrestling with the region's role in her life. That song's melody and pace, though, itself seems an ode to “Billie Joe” and may not have fit into the set.)
“So much of what makes us who we are,” our art, music, culture, history and strife, "all comes from that black earth” in the Delta, Cash said.
She introduced one of her best songs, “Money Road,” about the lonely stretch of highway outside Greenwood, Mississippi where you’ll find one of the supposed grave sites of blues legend Robert Johnson--and just down the road a piece, Bryant’s Grocery, where teenager Emmett Till made an “innocent but fatal error” (as Cash put it) in speaking to a white woman. Till soon was captured from his uncle Mose Wright’s place and murdered, later found in the Tallahatchie, which flows almost right by the old store. (I’ve visited the site, and it’s chilling to say the least.) In her song, Cash parallels the lives of Till and her own son, who's also visited the “foreign" land of the Delta, “a thousand miles from where we live.”
Cash also performed “When the Master Calls the Roll,” a Civil War ballad that almost could pass for a Carter Family song straight out of the Virginia mountains. It was originally written for family friend Emmylou Harris by Leventhal and Cash’s first husband (still their friend, and father of Cash’s daughters), songwriter Rodney Crowell.
A surprise performance
The evening’s biggest surprise came when Cash asked original Stax Records soul singer and longtime Atlantan William Bell (my all-time favorite soul singer) to sing his country-soul classic, “Everybody Loves a Winner.” Leventhal produced Bell’s terrific 2016 comeback album, This Is Where I Live, which like Cash's The River and the Thread won a Grammy Award for best Americana album. See this short article for more on Bell. I hope to interview him at some point.)
The main show’s finale’ was with Cash’s best-known 1980s new wave-but-still-country hit, “Seven Year Ache,” which influenced many artists to com.
After Bell's performance during the encore, Leventhal was back on piano as Cash closed with the folk classic featured on The List and seems to have ancient roots: “Five Hundred Miles.”
“Always out here on my own,” Cash sang, “I’m still 500 miles away from home.”
Also: See our story on Cash's performance--and a host of others'--at the Nashville concert to celebrate Ken Burns' forthcoming documentary series, Country Music.
Gallery below: 1.) From left, Rosanne Cash, John Leventhal and bandmates play and observe as legendary soul singer William Bell performs, at center. 2.) Bryant's Grocery in Money, Mississippi, where Emmett Till made his fateful visit. 3.) One of the handful of possible grave sites of master bluesman Robert Johnson, which like the old grocery and Tallahatchie River bridge also is on Money Road. 4.) William Bell's autographed Grammy Award-winning comeback album. (Photos by Alan Richard)