Born in May 1955 Rosanne Cash grew up with Johnny and Vivian in Memphis, Tennessee while dad was hanging with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. It was an amazing childhood, one that took her from Tennessee to Ventura and Los Angeles. She was part of her father’s road show for going on three years, but not as a spoilt showbiz kid – she actually did the wardrobe for a while. Eventually her own song writing sensibilities shone through and she teamed up with early mentor Rodney Crowell, a great modernist American country star in his own right, and made a self-titled album for a German label before releasing a slew of excellent albums on Columbia.
We pick her story up as her marriage and working relationship alongside Crowell ends and she is embarking on a new chapter with the singer/guitarist/producer John Leventhal who had produced her album The Wheel. Leventhal is another artist of great repute whose credits include working with Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello, Bruce Hornsby and Dolly Parton. Check him out too: he’s great. Anyhow, it’s now 1996 and Rosanne is considering her life. She makes the album 10 Song Demo (it’s actually 11 songs) for Capitol. A stripped-down and stark affair, backed up by Leventhal, guitarist Larry Campbell and drummer Lincoln Schleifer, it includes the marvellous pieces ‘The Summer I Read Collette’ and ‘Western Wall’, later covered by Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. As a low-key introduction to an exciting new phase in Rosanne’s life this couldn’t be bettered.
Rules of Travel (2003) was seven years coming, but it was well worth the wait. Always keen to champion new talent or simply to sift through the Great American (and British) songbook, Cash is joined on several tracks by daddy John – the Father of the Nation –while Sheryl Crow and Steve Earle are also on harmonised hand. The stand out tracks are everywhere but we’re obsessing over Jakob Dylan’s ‘Hope Against Hope’’, Marc Cohn’s ‘Three Steps Down’ and the elegiac closer written by the lady herself –‘Last Stop Before Home’.
Up and running again after raising a young family, Rosanne’s Black Cadillac is a reflection on the deaths of her parents, and also her stepmother June Carter Cash. All three had died within the previous two years. Despite the subject matter, and it gets pretty darn bleak as you might expect, there is an uplifting note to be heard here. Autobiographical in the extreme: try listening to ‘House on the Lake’ or ‘World Without Sound’ and you’ll hear that Rosanne is a chip off the old block. Grief, loss, anger, remembrance and a stubborn desire to stay strong are all here. This is country music in the ninth degree: intelligent and passionate. The central piece on which all else hangs is ‘I Was Watching You’ where she describes her life from childhood to reaching 50 and being in and around Johnny Cash’s company. It’s a most remarkable song. You have to hear it, even though it will break your heart.
The List (2009) refers to a sheaf of paper her father had given her as a teenager on which he’d written 100 or so of the most essential country songs of all time in his opinion – and he should know! Typically, Rosanne updates that concept by tackling the song from a more Americana point of view. She begins with ‘Miss the Mississippi And You’ and the timeless ‘Motherless Children’ before traveling on a side trip through tracks penned by Hank Snow, Hal David, Merle Haggard and Bob Dylan. Guests are of the highest order: Bruce Springsteen is around and so is Elvis Costello. That’s Rufus Wainwright guesting on ‘Silver Wings’– the ole Merle tune. Our gal’s got a great sense of humour. Also, immaculate taste. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy adds his mournful country rock tones and the arrangements are handled impeccably by Leventhal.
So to the current The River & The Thread album then. Unsurprisingly this classic has won Rosanne Cash her best reviews ever, but it will still take time to ingest the loveliness within. Certainly this new disc is fit to rank alongside anything she’s laid down to date, and that includes the epic Rhythm & Romance and King’s Record Shop from her mid-eighties ’discovery’ period. It is a consummate piece of work all round. Not only does it reunite her with Rodney Crowell for ‘When The Master Calls the Roll’, the deluxe edition also includes Jesse Winchester’s ‘Biloxi’ and Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Two Girls’– both tracks she makes her own, no small feat considering their Alpha male genesis. Complex emotional terrain is covered and explored with a true fictional writer’s ear and eye. We love ‘Money Road’ and ‘Etta’s Tune’ and can’t stop listening to the throbbing ’50,000 Watts’, as haunting a summary of the old AM radio stations booming out from the Deep South as The Doors classic ‘Texas Radio (And The Big Beat)’. This too comes crawling out of the Virginia swamps, cool and slow. Totally recommended.
Rosanne Cash’s legacy, aside from her body of work, is to have grown beyond her famous personal history and to develop as an artist without kissing ass or paying lip service to any country or Americana establishment. She’s invented her own rules of engagement and like kindred spirits such as Tom Petty, John Hiatt and Rodney Crowell, she’s emerged on the other side as a vibrant spirit who knows her craft while creating an art form for others to enjoy. Now that is a true gift.
Words: Max Bell
The River & the Thread was released in January 2014 under Blue Note Records. The album received critical acclaim from music critics.
Rules of Travel is an album by singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, released in 2003. It was her first album of new material in nearly seven years. On the track "September When it Comes", she is joined by her father Johnny Cash.
Black Cadillac is an album by Rosanne Cash, released in 2006. The album was a reflection on the death of Cash's mother,Vivian Liberto, father, Johnny Cash, and her stepmother, June Carter Cash, who all died within a two-year period. The album was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk album in 2007
The List is an album by Rosanne Cash, released in 2009. When she was 18, Johnny Cash gave his daughter Rosanne a list of 100 essential country songs in an effort to expand her knowledge of country music. On the album, Rosanne re-interprets 12 of the songs from the list through her own perspective on country music, her father, and her life in New York instead of Nashville. It also includes guest performances by Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy and Rufus Wainwright.
The album contains country songs made famous by Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, Don Gibson, Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell,Patsy Cline, and other country stars, as well the traditional folk song "Motherless Children" and 1960s folk numbers by Bob Dylanand Peter, Paul, and Mary.
The List peaked at #5 on Billboard's country album chart — Cash's first top ten album on the chart in 22 years — and hit #22 on the general Billboard Hot 200, topping her previously most successful album on that chart, 1981's Seven Year Ache which peaked at #26. It was also her first entry on the Billboard Top Rock Albums chart, where it debuted and peaked at #8. The album was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Americana Album.
10 Song Demo is a 1996 album by Rosanne Cash, produced by her husband, John Leventhal. The album, her first for Capitol Records after having left Columbia, her label for fourteen years, included mostly stripped down acoustic tracks. Despite the album's title, it actually contains eleven songs, not ten. The song "The Summer I Read Collette" was a tribute to French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt would later cover the song "Western Wall", including it on their 1999 collaboration Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions.