Nearing the end of the first half of her triumphant performance before a hometown crowd at Town Hall Monday night, Rosanne Cash mentioned that she’d been living in New York now for almost a quarter-century.
In fact, when Cash courageously moved to New York from Nashville in 1992, it was much more than a mere change of address.
She also moved her career trajectory and record label representation from that of a somewhat traditional country music star with a string of No. 1 hits (including 1980s classics like “Seven Year Ache,” “Blue Moon with Heartache,” “Tennessee Flat Top Box” and “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me”) to a roots-pop album artist fearlessly staking out her own territory in music with acclaimed albums (including Interiors, Black Cadillac and now The River & the Thread).
Clearly, she knew what she was doing no matter the understandable doubts that abounded around her. But the overwhelmingly positive response to The River & the Thread not only marks the pinnacle of her career as a songwriter (she wrote the album entirely with her husband, producer and guitarist/music director John Leventhal), but as a performer: At her Town Hall stop, part of an album release tour backed by a band twice her usual (besides Leventhal, who also sings backup with other players, it includes, guitarist/lap steel player Kevin Barry, guitarist/mandolinist/fiddler David Mansfield, bassist Zev Katz, keyboardist Jon Cowherd, percussionist Rick DePofi and drummer Dan Rieser), she didn’t need to play much acoustic rhythm guitar; rather, she stood at the center stage mic, poised and confident, in her own fashionable version of her father’s black garb, every graceful gesture serving to explicate songs of exceptional literacy and evocation.
It only made sense that her comment about New York prefaced “Night School,” characterized by Cash as “a little bit Stephen Foster and a little bit Johnny Mercer as he [Leventhal] is wont to do,” for such is Cash’s—and Leventhal’s—compositional achievement in bringing together her country music background with her cosmopolitan scope. Lyrically, the song is a wistful reflection on time spent in the “mystery town” of Mobile—“mystery” being a key word pertaining to The River & the Thread.
The album, she said early in the show, links songs about the South, “the deep, dark, mysterious, dense, strange and beautiful South,” the description, incidentally, being equally applicable to Cash herself.
Johnny Cash's daughter was actually born in Memphis, though she only lived there three years before moving with her family to California. But Memphis—and by extension, the South—“seems to stay with you,” she said at Town Hall, where the first half of the show was devoted to the full The River & the Thread album in sequence--a concept she said she wanted to duplicate since seeing Lou Reed perform Magic and Loss in its entirety. In doing so, she preserved the integrity of her album and the physical and inner journey it represents.
As she stated before “The Long Way Home,” “It seems as you grow up and grow older that you make a lot of escape routes and take a lot of excursions and left turns--and sometimes all you’re doing is taking the long way back to yourself, to find out who you aren’t.”
At some point, she added, “you find you’re just taking the long way home.”
Specifically, The River & the Thread resulted from a series of Southern trips she and Leventhal undertook, in a personal quest of self-discovery and rediscovery. Hence, “The Sunken Lands” conjured both the site and the spirit of her father’s Depression-era boyhood home in Dyess, Ark., which she’s been working to restore as a historical landmark. She introduced the Civil War vignette “When the Master Calls the Roll” by relating that there were Cash family members on both sides, then finished the lovely tune to prolonged applause.
She ended the first half with the album-closing “Money Road” and its dream depiction of the Tallahatchie Bridge in Mississippi--and its telling lyric, “What you seek is seeking you/You can cross the bridge and carve your name/But the river stays the same.”
She returned to the bridge (on which she stands on the The River & the Thread album cover) in the second half, when she and Leventhal sang Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 classic “Ode to Billie Joe.” After noting how after all this time people are still wondering what Billie Joe and his girlfriend threw off the bridge, she revealed that when she and Leventhal sat down on it for half an hour, in the vicinity of William Faulkner’s house, the spot in Money, Miss. where African-American teenager Emmett Till was brutally and notoriously murdered in 1955, and the presumed grave of Robert Johnson, they threw a guitar pick.
The couple also performed the country classic “The Long Black Veil,” which Johnny Cash recorded and is included in Rosanne’s album The List, made up of songs her father instructed her to learn as part of her music education (other List songs sung during the second Town Hall concert set included “Motherless Children,” “I’m Movin’ On” and Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country,” which Johnny Cash had famously recorded with the singer-songwriter). Cash’s poignant vocal notwithstanding, the song showcased Leventhal’s perfectly understated guitar complement.
And Cash also delivered several of her country hits, including her signature “Seven Year Ache” and “Blue Moon with Heartache,” the latter, she noted, written when she was 23--younger than her youngest daughter Carrie.
The comment essentially brought an unforgettable evening around full circle.
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