Since the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum began its annual artist-in-residence program back in 2003, only two women have graced its stage — Connie Smith, in 2012, and Rosanne Cash, this year. Last night marked Cash’s first-of-three performances at the Hall with a nearly three-hour performance, during which she and her band played her much-lauded The River & the Thread in its entirety, along with a smattering of back-catalog tunes.
As the musicians laid down the now-signature groove of “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” Cash swaggered out to center stage and had at it. Classy and confident, she seemed right at home in the 800-seat CMA Theater. And why shouldn’t she? Cash noted that a good part of her family’s history resides in that building. (In fact, a Johnny Cash window display greeted guests as they walked down the corridor toward the theater’s lobby.)
Another part of Cash’s family history resides in the stories of the South that fill The River & the Thread and, between the songs, she fleshed those stories out a bit more. To hear an artist’s seminal work, as originally visioned and personally narrated, is a powerful experience that takes the listener deeper into the craftsmanship than they can possibly go on their own. And, because the record came out 18 months ago, Cash and company were thoroughly at ease in its presentation.
In addition to producer/guitarist/co-writer/husband John Leventhal, Cash’s phenomenally talented band included Kevin Barry on guitar and lap steel, Glenn Patscha on keyboards, Zev Katz on bass, and Dan Rieser on drums. Throughout the set, each player got a chance to shine from the “gospel song that even agnostics might love” that is “Tell Heaven” to the “Stephen Foster-ish, Johnny Mercer-ish, and Kurt Vile-ish” melody of “Night School.” But “Money Road” — which winds its way past Robert Johnson’s grave at Mount Zion Church, Emmett Till’s undoing at Bryant’s Grocery, the Tallahatchie Bridge, William Faulkner’s once-home, and more — was where Leventhal and Barry really got to go for it.
Deep into the album, Cash introduced Cory Chisel to guest on “50,000 Watts,” explaining that because Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and others listened to the “race music” being played on WDIA in Memphis, that station “changed the course of modern country music through those young men.” Likewise, she heard Chisel on the radio in Europe and tracked him down to sing with her, feeling like he had the power to do the same. That’s quite a statement to make, and the honey-voiced Chisel showed why he deserved it.
For the second half of the show, Cash offered up all sorts of great cuts, from the shuffling groove of “Radio Operator” from 2006’s Black Cadillac to the country chug of “I’m Movin’ On” off 2009’s The List. In between her tunes, she invited Lucinda Williams and Tony Joe White out to take turns in the spotlight.
The showstopper, quite literally, was a blazing rendition of the classic “Tennessee Flat Top Box” which found Leventhal and Walsh handing unfathomable runs off to each other. For the encore, Cash followed “Seven Year Ache” with a rousing group rendition of “500 Miles” which found Cash, Chisel, and Williams each taking a verse, with White chiming in on harmonica.
Over the course of those three hours, it became quite clear that Rosanne Cash’s voice sounds and feels like that of an old friend, and her songs are not just the stories of her life … they are the stories of all our lives.
Photos courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum