Tuesday, December 03, 2013

TOP STORY >> For Cash, debut in the Rock

Leader editor

“You thought you’d left it all behind
You thought you’d up and gone
But all you did was figure out
How to take the long way home.”
— “The Long Way Home”
Rosanne Cash

Rosanne Cash made her Little Rock debut at a soldout show Nov. 23 at South on Main Restaurant, which is bringing world-class performers to the southern end of downtown in the space where Juanita’s used to be. (Two weeks earlier, the brilliant jazz pianist Marcus Roberts performed there in another soldout concert.)

It was standing-room only on a cold Saturday night as fans started arriving early hoping to hear her hits going back 30 years.

They were not disappointed. She reprised her many hits and performed a generous sample from her CDs and introduced her newest songs.

Cash also reminisced about her famous dad, Johnny Cash, who never forgot his Arkansas roots.

An engaging performer with a ready smile, Rosanne Cash was accompanied by her husband, John Leventhal, in an acoustic program that lasted about 75 minutes, including an encore.

She’s down-to-earth, much like her father, who taught her 100 important country songs, which she calls “The List” — the title of her last CD. Think of it as “Songs My Daddy Taught Me,” an updated version of the Everly Brothers’ “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us” LP from 1958.

“The List” is a terrific CD from 2009 with 13 songs, including duets with Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Rufus Wainwright and Jeff Tweedy. A second CD is promised and, perhaps, there will be many more.

At the concert, her husband accompanied her on several songs from “The List,” including a bluesy “Motherless Children” and a bouncy “Heartaches by the Number,” pairing the couple on guitars for much of the program.

She also sang a generous portion from her upcoming CD, “The River and the Thread,” coming in January from Blue Note Records, which marks its 75th anniversary next month. (For many decades, it was exclusively a jazz label — still considered the coolest by critics and fans — but it has expanded into soul and pop music with Aaron Neville, Norah Jones, Willie Nelson, and now, we’re glad to hear, Rosanne Cash.)

All the songs on “The River and the Thread” are original compositions: “Etta’s Tune,” “The Sunken Lands,” “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” “Tell Heaven,” “Money Road,” “50,000 Watts” and more.

She talked fondly about Marshall and Etta Grant. Marshall was her father’s longtime bassist. Every morning for 65 years, Marshall would ask his wife, Etta, “What’s the temperature, darlin’?” “Etta’s Tune” might move you to tears. So will Rosanne’s love for her dad.

She said she was nominated for a Grammy in 1984 and lost. Driving around afterward, she composed “Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,” which won her a Grammy the next year.

Her Little Rock show was a fundraiser for Oxford American magazine, whose current issue is devoted to Tennessee music and features her dad on the cover. Her article about her family is the best piece in the magazine.

Johnny Cash, who was born in 1932 in Kingsland in Cleveland County and grew up in Dyess in Mississippi County, spent most of his life in Memphis (where his four daughters were born during his first marriage to Vivian Liberto) and near Nashville.

In between, she reminisced about her father’s Arkansas roots: He grew up in a federally subsidized colony, where hundreds of poor white families received a small house and a mule on 40 acres of land.

Rosanne said Dyess Colony, her dad’s boyhood home from the age of 3, was the brainchild of Eleanor Roosevelt. The colony helped 500 desperately poor families by giving them land, a house, a mule and seed for planting. After the Mississippi flood, the ground at Dyess turned into what she called “gumbo soil.” It was a share-cropping settlement where the family farmed cotton. Johnny’s grandmother took in laundry so Johnny could have singing lessons.

His voice teacher told his mother he was too good for lessons. “This boy’s got something special. I don’t want to mess it up,” the teacher said.

It was obvious Cash was glad to be back in Arkansas, and she promised to be back.

In benefit concerts at ASU-Jonesboro, she’s helped raise funds to restore her father’s boyhood home in Dyess.

Cash called Oxford American an amazing literary magazine. It does a yearly music issue with at least one CD inside. The current issue has two CDs of music recorded in Tennessee. Many of the performers have Arkansas connections, including Johnny and Rosanne, Billy Joe Riley, Charlie Rich, Al Green, Sylvan Hills High School graduate Marc Franklin, the trumpet player with the Bo Keys and others.

Cash talked of driving down Hwy. 61 in Mississippi from Memphis to New Orleans on a musical tour with her husband: “It doesn’t get better than this,” she said.

The trip took them from the Faulkner House in Oxford, Miss., to Dockery Farms near Cleveland, Miss. (where the blues probably started in the early 20th Century), to Robert Johnson’s grave near Greenwood, Miss., and the Tallahatchie Bridge.

“Money Road” tells the story of Emmett Till, a black Chicago teenager who was beaten to death for allegedly acting smart with a young white woman in Money, Miss. His body was tossed into the Tallahachie River. Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” made the river famous 15 years later. Mississippian John Hurt lived almost all of his life just up the road in Avalon.

As she pointed out, that’s a lot of musical history in one small place. Johnny and Rosanne Cash have a major role in it.