(Photo courtesy Hancher Auditorium)
Everything and more: an interview with Rosanne Cash
Carrying the legacy of her famous musical family forward, Rosanne Cash is one of the great singer-songwriters of our time. Pitchfork calls her latest record; She Remembers Everything, “a collection of miniatures that collectively paint a vivid, haunting portrait of the blessings and bruises of life.” Rosanne Cash is appearing at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City on February 8, 2020.
Interview by Gregg Shapiro
If you enjoy contemporary country female artists such as Kacey Musgraves and Brandi Carlile, you should thank Rosanne Cash. 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. 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, featuring collaborations with Elvis Costello, Kris Kristofferson, and Sam Phillips. Cash was kind enough to answer a few questions before embarking on the latest leg of her concert tour.
Gregg Shapiro: Rosanne, you co-wrote and sang the song “8 Gods of Harlem” with Elvis Costello and Kris Kristofferson on your most recent album She Remembers Everything. What was it like for you to collaborate with them?
Rosanne Cash: 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 lying 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 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!
GS: 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?
RC: 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.
GS: 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.
RC: 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.
GS: 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?
RC: 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.
GS: That’s beautiful!
RC: Thank you.
GS: 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?
RC: [Laughs] 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.
GS: 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 children when it comes to careers in music?
RC: 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 [laughs].
GS: 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?
RC: 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.
GS: Living in NY for as long as you have, do you ever feel the call of Broadway, the desire to write a Broadway musical?
RC: [Laughs] I just did [laughs]!
RC: 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 find a stage to workshop it. It’s a really long process to write for Broadway, much longer than I realized.
GS: I don’t think it’s an 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?
RC: 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.
(Photo courtesy Hancher Auditorium)
GS: I’m so glad you mentioned Brandi because I was wondering if you had any thoughts about the growing presence of OUT country artists such as Brandi, as well as Heather McEntire, Lil Nas X, Ty Herndon, Chely Wright, and Brandy Clark, among others.
RC: I think there were just as many in the past who felt really constricted about coming out and being in country music. It just thrills me that we’ve achieved the kind of progress that they feel comfortable coming out and are accepted and have enormous fan bases. Sometimes I feel lately that progress is going in the wrong direction and then you look at something like this, and you know that some things are going right.
Editors note – Rosanne Cash will be appearing at Hancher Auditorium on February 8, 2020. There are just a limited number of tickets available, according to the Hancher Website. Visit https://hancher.uiowa.edu/ for last-minute ticket options.