Photos: Stephanie Berger

Rosanne Cash and Her “Peculiar” South

Rosanne Cash brings her stories of violence and redemption, beauty and suffering, to Carnegie Hall with The River and the Thread.
Rosanne Cash

At the start of her Carnegie Hall show, Rosanne Cash happily announced, “This is a hometown gig, the best kind there is, in the best city in the world.” New York might not exactly be her hometown — she was born in Memphis — but Cash has lived in the Big Apple for nearly 25 years since leaving Nashville, so she’s earned the bragging rights. What seemed a bit ironic about her remark was that her concert was all about the American South, where she was born and raised, and particularly the Mississippi Delta. The first half of the two-and-a-half-hour show was devoted to The River and the Thread, the album that won Cash the Best Americana Grammy in 2015. Cash performed the album in sequence, from “A Feather Is Not a Bird” to “Money Road”, something she said she’d wanted to do with her work for 35 years but had never done before.

This proved to be a mixed blessing. She and her husband and producer John Leventhal, who also plays guitar in her band, came up with some evocative and impeccably crafted country / folk / pop numbers inspired by road trips the two took down south on Highway 61. But The River and the Thread is a subtle, often reflective record, and it doesn’t always translate well to live performance.

Cash was in excellent voice, and her musicians supported her with taste and finesse. (For the gig, Cash employed, but seriously underutilized, the fine blues and jazz singer Catherine Russell, as a backup vocalist.) Being faithful to a fault to the album’s arrangements, however, the show magnified its limitations. It was a bit too tasteful and reserved, and short on the fire and funk of the southern idioms to which Cash and Leventhal pay homage.

Cash’s show was the last in the Southern roots music series she curated at Carnegie Hall. (The three previous events featured the Time Jumpers, a country swing band; the Alabama soul group St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and Cooder-Skaggs-White, a country supergroup.) Cash was thrilled to have been enlisted by Carnegie to curate the series, and to perform on the main stage of the venerable venue. It wasn’t her first time there — she’d taken part in a Rolling Stones tribute show and a Rainforest Fund benefit. Back in 1994, she sang with her father in what turned out to be Johnny Cash’s final Carnegie performance. The River and the Thread was her debut as a headliner.

Cash, with her long, auburn hair, and dressed in a flared, patterned jacket over black pants, cut a casually glamorous figure. She introduced each song with some background about its provenance and meaning, her stage manner an equal mix of warmth and wry humor. “Sunken Lands”, she explained, was inspired by her paternal grandparents’ hardscrabble existence in a Federal Emergency Relief Administration project in Arkansas, where they were relocated in 1935 after a flood. Introducing the tender “Etta’s Tune”, which celebrates the 65-year marriage of Johnny Cash’s longtime bass player Marshall Grant and his wife Etta, Cash marveled at the couple’s longevity, joking that her 20-year marriage to Leventhal sometimes seemed like…”Twenty-two,” Leventhal interjected.

Gospel, she observed, is “key to Southern music”. Since neither she nor Leventhal is “traditionally religious”, they wrote “Tell Heaven” as “a gospel song we thought agnostics might love”. It’s a lovely song, but it hardly qualifies as gospel.

“Money Road”, the album’s last track, proved to be the highlight of the show’s first half. Tougher than most of the album’s portraits of southern scenes and characters, “Money Road” recounts two Mississippi tragedies: the murders of legend-shrouded blues singer Robert Johnson and of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black youth whom racist vigilantes, in 1955, beat, blinded, and shot to death for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Cash’s introduction summed up the world where these crimes occurred as one of “violence and redemption, beauty and suffering”, and she and her band filled the performance with those elements, mostly through the extended and gripping exchanges between Leventhal and (consistently fine) second guitarist Kevin Barry.

The River and the Thread invites comparisons to The Ghosts of Highway 20, the latest album by another Southern born and bred songwriter, Lucinda Williams. Both records are structured as journeys through the terrain — physical, cultural, spiritual — of the Deep South, with memorable character portraits along the way. (Although Cash released her album in 2014 and Williams released hers in February, they were writing and recording them around the same time.) Both women, who are close in age (Cash was born in 1955, Williams in 1953), left the South to escape the parochialism of its country music industry and its social and political conservatism.

At Carnegie Hall, Cash remarked, “The South is a peculiar place. Therein lies the beauty.” That observation, with its detached and literary tone, seems to point to the main difference between Cash and Williams. The latter may have moved away, but in her songs the South seems ever-present, in all its contradictions, not looked back on from geographical and emotional distance. Both have made first-rate albums from their experiences and memories, but Williams’ record — rawer, bluesier, and more emotionally direct — cuts deeper.

The second half of Cash’s show was more rewarding. “Radio Operator”, a surging rockabilly number she dedicated to Glen Campbell, showcased Kevin Barry on pedal steel guitar. Cash followed that with a slow, sultry take on Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” and “Blue Moon with Heartache”, a song she wrote when she was in her early 20s and one she said she’d fallen in and out of love with over the years.

The set hit an early peak with an entrancing “Ode to Billie Joe”, a duet for Cash and Leventhal. The lyrics of Bobby Gentry’s 1967 chart-topping ballad are specific in their down-home details (“It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day’) but mysterious, too. (What was it that the title character and a girl “who looked a lot like” the song’s narrator threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge?) Cash rendered Gentry’s enigmatic Southern tale soulfully and with understated drama, and Leventhal’s acoustic guitar accompaniment was perfectly attuned to the song’s mood.

Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy joined Cash for several numbers — Lefty Frizell’s “Long Black Veil”, “Please Tell My Brothers”, a sweet, simple love song to family he recorded in 1998 with the ad hoc band Golden Smog, and Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country”. (Cash, ever conscious of history, reminded the audience that her father and Dylan cut the tune for the latter’s 1968 album, Nashville Skyline. But with the crowd’s predominant AARP demographic, the reminder probably wasn’t necessary.) Tweedy made the strongest impression with “California Stars”, from Mermaid Avenue, the 1988 album of Woody Guthrie lyrics that Wilco and Billy Bragg set to new music.

“Tennessee Flat Top Box”, the Johnny Cash tune that was the show’s next-to-last number, featured the band’s two great guitarists, and Leventhal, a white-haired, bespectacled beanpole, and Barry, also with snowy locks, bearded and built like a linebacker, set the place on fire. Things cooled off with “Seven Year Ache”, a 1981 country and pop hit for Cash that brought back Tweedy to the stage.

After that quiet closer, the obligatory encore was likewise laidback — Dylan’s “Farewell, Angelina”, recorded by Joan Baez in 1965 and a staple of her concerts for many years. A better choice might have been “Highway 61 Revisited”, which, besides being a superior song, would’ve made a nice connection to The River and the Thread, an album born from its creators’ travels down that fabled Southern route.