If you enjoy contemporary country female artists such as Kacey Musgraves and Brandi Carlile, you should thank Rosanne Cash.
The Grammy Award-winning daughter of Johnny Cash has been at the forefront of the modern country music scene since releasing her debut album in 1979, paving the way for others to follow in her path — a debt Ken Burns acknowledged by featuring her as a touchstone in his acclaimed “Country Music” series.
Cash’s groundbreaking 1980s albums “Seven Year Ache” and “King’s Record Shop”, followed by her extraordinary 1990s output (including the album “Interiors”), as well as her 21st-century masterworks “Rules of Travel” and “Black Cadillac” have led her to where she is today. Her latest album, “She Remembers Everything” (Blue Note) — featuring the Grammy-nominated song “Crossing to Jerusalem”, co-written with her husband, John Leventhal — is another country-pop masterpiece, showcasing collaborations with Elvis Costello, Kris Kristofferson and Sam Phillips. Cash, who performs at The Ridgefield Playhouse this spring, was kind enough to answer a few questions before embarking on the latest leg of her concert tour.
Rosanne, you co-wrote and sing the song “8 Gods of Harlem” with Elvis Costello and Kris Kristofferson on “She Remembers Everything.” What was it like for you to collaborate with them?
“It was incredibly satisfying. I’ve been friends with Kris since I was a teenager, and Elvis for 25 years. On paper it wouldn’t have worked. (laughs) It didn’t seem like a natural collaboration. But it just came to me, I don’t know why. I was laying around one day and I thought about writing together. At first, I felt a little hesitant to ask them because, as I said, it didn’t seem to make sense, but they were both really into it. I had already written the first verse of ‘8 Gods of Harlem,’ and I asked them if they would be interested in writing their own verses, with each verse being part of the same theme about this gun violence that happened in Harlem to a young boy. They finished their verses and we recorded it in one day.”
To my ears, “8 Gods of Harlem” sounds like one of the most political songs you’ve written and performed. We’re speaking on the day of the impeachment hearings and I was wondering if you consider yourself a political person or is that something new in your life?
“I consider myself politically aware. That’s by design. I stay educated. But more than that, I consider myself a socially conscious person. I believe in democracy and civic participation. I marched last night here in New York. It was freezing rain, but there were thousands of people out there. I thought that if I felt as strongly as I do about the desecration of the Oval Office, then I had to get out and do my civic duty and participate.”
Another standout collaboration on the album is the title track, which you co-wrote with Sam Phillips, who also provides harmony vocals. Please say something about how you came to work with Sam.
“She and I have been friends for quite some time. We’ve known each other peripherally even longer than that. We have the same song publisher. He kept saying to both of us, ‘You two should really write a song together.’ It seemed like the right time. I wanted to write this particular song with a woman. It just made sense to me. I admire her songwriting so much that she seemed like an obvious choice.”
The song “Rabbit Hole” is dedicated to two other songwriting contemporaries of yours, Joe Henry and Billy Bragg. What can you tell me about that dedication?
“I was in a really difficult time of my life, recovering from brain surgery. Physically, I felt so bad. It happened that I had to do this, that I had committed to a year before at this festival in Germany that Joe Henry was curating. I was in a lot of pain. I couldn’t even deal with my own bag. I had to send my luggage on ahead of me. I got there and was so depressed. I walked into rehearsal on the first day and Joe and Billy were there. They were so loving and the music was so great. I felt my head lift up and I wrote that song and dedicated it to them.”
On your 2009 album “The List”, you sang a duet with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco on “Long Black Veil.” Is there a Wilco cover in your future?
“What a good idea. I do love Wilco. Jeff’s song ‘Please Tell My Brother,’ oh, my God, that song just kills me. That might be an obvious choice.”
Like his father, Tweedy’s son Spencer is also a musician, which made wonder if being a musical legacy yourself had any influence on whether you are encouraging or discouraging your own children when it comes to careers in music?
“My son Jakob Leventhal is a musician. I honestly didn’t encourage or discourage him. I really believe in letting a kid show you who they are rather than trying to tell them who they are. It turned that he is a phenomenal musician and songwriter. I didn’t have much to do with that, unless there’s some DNA at work there.”
As of now, you have a book of short stories (“Bodies of Water”) and a memoir (“Composed”) to your name. Are there more books in the works?
“I’ve been thinking about that lately. A lot has happened in my life since I wrote my first memoir. Even when I was writing it, my editor said, ‘You should think about more than one volume of this.’ That’s kind of in the back of my mind. I have written some pieces that would probably be part of that. Other than that, I’ve written a lot of essays since the memoir came out, that’s been satisfying my urge to write prose.”
Living in New York for as long as you have, do you ever feel the call of Broadway, the desire to write a Broadway musical?
“I just did.”
“I wrote the lyrics. John Leventhal composed the music. John Weidman (“Pacific Overtures,” “Assassins,” “Big” and others), who’s this very experienced old Broadway hand, wrote the book. We’re in that position now of finding producers and finding a stage to workshop it. It’s a really long process to write for Broadway, much longer than I realized.”
I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that the current generation of 21st-century women in country — including Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini — owe you a debt of gratitude for paving the way for them. What do you think of this current generation of female country artists?
“I really admire their confidence. I didn’t have as much confidence as they seem to when I was their age. I was still trying to figure out what I did best — who I was essentially, what best suited my voice and trying to get better as a songwriter. Maybe they feel that internally, but externally they seem so confident and powerful to me. It’s very inspiring, actually. I love Brandi Carlile. I think she’s phenomenal. She kind of embodies everything I was just talking about. She knows who she is, her voice is an extraordinary instrument that she uses in a really refined way. I just love her.”
Themed music cruises are becoming increasingly popular. One such cruise — the fifth Outlaw Country Cruise, featuring Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Kris Kristofferson and others — set sail last month. How do you feel about cruises and could you ever see yourself being part of the lineup on such a cruise?
“I could see myself being a part of such a lineup. Those are all people that I respect. But I can’t see myself doing a cruise. I just don’t like it. The whole idea of it makes me so nervous. I’m just not there. It’s not anything I can do.”
Rosanne Cash performs April 16 at The Ridgefield Playhouse, 80 E. Ridge Road. For more, visit ridgefieldplayhouse.org.