From Memphis to Carnegie Hall
After winning three Grammy Awards for The River & The Thread and in advance of her Carnegie Hall concert, Rosanne Cash reflects on her time as a Perspectives artist, her musical past, and what is yet to come in her storied 35-year career.
It came as a huge surprise to me that I was asked to do a Perspectives series. I felt humbled. “You’re asking me to do this for Carnegie Hall?” I couldn’t believe it. It made me feel very proud that my work was being acknowledged in this amazing way.
There have been several times I have stood on the stage of Carnegie Hall. Each was a moment of real transcendence—that which happens when you combine great music with a perfect performance space. That stage ... There’s something about that stage. The first time was with my dad in ’94. I remember the day before his show, he asked me to sit in and do a song or two with him. I was peeved with him about something I cannot even recall now, and I said no, even though it was Carnegie Hall. I can’t imagine what I was thinking.
The next day, he asked me again. “You sure you don’t want to?” And again I said no. Then he walked out of the room and I saw his back. I thought of how many times I had seen his back from sitting in the wings, flooded with spotlights. There was something about that image that was so moving to me. I said, “Dad, wait. I’ll do it. I’ll do it.” And when I walked out on stage with him that night, everything got fixed. I was with him where he was most comfortable and where all things can be healed—at least in my family.
And every other time, there has been something so special about it—each moment is seared in my memory: the Rolling Stones tribute, St. Patrick’s Day with The Chieftains. For the Rainforest Fund Benefit Concert in 2012, I performed with people I had loved for a long time: Elton John, James Taylor, Sting, Vince Gill, Meryl Streep … They lifted me. Those moments change your life in subtle ways.
That night of the Rainforest Fund concert, the theme was songs from the movies. So I chose “Everybody’s Talkin’” from Midnight Cowboy and “Ode to Billie Joe.” (I fudged it slightly, picking the song that inspired the movie Ode to Billy Joe—different spelling and all.) President Clinton was in the audience. I had on this very complicated outfit and was in the ladies room during intermission, trying to undo it when my manager called through the door: “President Clinton wants to see you.”
So I quickly got the outfit back together and ran to this little anteroom. The Secret Service was in there, along with Elton and Meryl. President Clinton wanted to talk about “Ode to Billie Joe.” He had been very moved by the performance and had a well-developed theory about what the song meant and why it was so powerful. He talked about the Shame of the South—he spoke for a good 10 minutes, and all of us were riveted. You never know what will hit people, their reaction, or what feelings they might harbor about particular songs.
A few years before, I recorded The List, an album I made based on an actual list my dad made for me when I was 18 years old of what he called “100 Essential Country Songs.” It should have been titled “100 Essential American Songs” because it went further afield than just country. I saved that list. And after my dad died in 2003, I started thinking about it and about legacy and what that meant. If it had been a recipe my mom gave me, I might have made that recipe on special occasions. But it was a list my dad gave me and I thought, “Well, it is a little ungracious in mid-life not to claim your parents’ legacy and really own something that they personally gave you.” It was important.
After The List, everybody kept saying to me, “Are you going to do The List: Volume II?” Truthfully, I felt deflated by the idea, that it would be an easy way out. The List was an excursion outside of my essential nature. I’m a songwriter first, and I knew if I wasn’t writing songs, I wouldn’t be happy—I wouldn’t even be myself. John Leventhal, my husband and musical collaborator, started taking a lot of trips down South, and the songs started forming. We really saw that we were going to make an album about the deep, dark, mystical, peculiar, and beautiful American South—not proselytizing about the bad, not sentimentalizing the good, but something real, borrowed from the musical forms that we loved the most, with characters—some of whom I actually knew—and the specific landscape. These stories were bigger than me. They were not just about my feelings, but about real—and imagined—people rooted in immutable and resonant geography. This hard geography anchors The River & The Thread. And it still is a piece of home that I carry with me, although I only lived in the South a relatively short time and have been a New Yorker for decades.
I was born in Memphis, and my parents were Southerners. I’m deeply inspired by Southern roots music—everything from blues to Southern gospel, country-pop, Appalachian music—all of the richness and complexity of the poetry and melody that came from Southerners. The music that came out of the Delta and Appalachia is so important to our national character—we don’t really know who we are as Americans unless we know about that music, even if you don’t love it as I do. You should know that William Faulkner lived down the road from Robert Johnson, that Charlie Patton and Howlin’ Wolf worked the same cotton field just down the way from Eudora Welty. The literature and music that came from that one little area is staggering. And farther east, the birth of country music in Virginia spread to the entire nation from one little recording studio in Bristol, Tennessee. The blues of Mississippi led to R&B in Detroit, followed by Motown and all the music that came after that. We owe so much to this part of the country, and to trace it backwards and forwards is thrilling.
For the first half of my concert at Carnegie Hall, I am going to perform The River & The Thread in sequence, which is something I’ve wanted to do since I saw Lou Reed perform his album Magic and Loss in sequence. I was in tears for the whole concert—it was so beautiful. When an artist takes time to sequence an album and to create an overarching narrative, I like to know their intentions. I know it is the age of people downloading singles and listening to individual songs, and that’s great. But there is still this concept album form. It’s dated, maybe, and counter to current impulses, but to perform a sequence that I took so much time putting together—live—has added power. For the second half of the show, I’m definitely going to do some things from The List and my older catalogue, as they say, but there will be some surprises.
It’s been quite a ride in my 35 years of work, with a lot of ups and downs. But it doesn’t seem like it’s been that long. I always feel like a beginner. I always feel like the best is going to happen now, that something transcendent is just around the corner. It’s a gift to work with my partner, John. It’s a gift to live inside music. It’s a gift to be curious.