Rosanne Cash admitted on Thursday night that she looks at the world through a “peculiar prism.” In one of the songs she performed that night, “Modern Blue,” she sang of visiting Barcelona and Paris but still thinking of herself as being in Memphis, Tennessee, the city where she was born. Cash now calls New York City her home, but in her songs, the American South is always emotionally present, no matter how far she travels.
Cash’s latest album, The River & The Thread, is a song cycle about the American South, focusing on the Mississippi Delta, the region her family has its roots in. Cash kicked off her excellent concert at the Merriam Theater by performing all the songs on the album in sequence – “which is something I’ve always wanted to do,” she said.
It was an effective gambit. Cash, who has published a memoir and a book of short fiction, fleshed out each song by revealing what inspired it. (Meanwhile, moody photographs, most in black and white, were projected on a large screen at the back of the stage.)
For “The Sunken Lands,” she told the story of her grandmother Carrie Cash, “the heroine of this song,” who raised seven children while struggling to make ends meet. For “When the Master Calls the Roll,” she invoked an earlier set of ancestors – a Confederate soldier and his wife. (Cash is careful to point out that her ancestors fought on both sides during the Civil War.) For “50,000 Watts of Common Prayer,” Cash recounted the tale of an all-black Memphis radio station that ended up inspiring white musicians, leading to the birth of rock and roll.
Introducing “Etta’s Tune,” she told about the 65-year marriage of her friends Etta and Marshall Grant; Marshall was the longtime bass player for Cash’s father, the country music icon Johnny Cash. With spare, concise details, her lyrics fill in the details of the joy and strain inherent in a marriage to a touring musician:
No you never touched the whiskey
And you never took the pills
I traveled for a million miles
While you were standing still.
Cash’s expressive, vibrato-filled alto sounds like it’s barely aged since her days scoring country hits in the 1980s. And while she’s not a flashy performer, her warmth, intelligence, and low-key wit make her an engaging performer.
John Leventhal, Cash’s husband and songwriting partner, played lead guitar, lending many of the songs an echo-filled swamp-rock sound. On “The Sunken Lands,” Leventhal added some Chet Atkins-style country fingerpicking, even quoting a few bars of Atkins’ “Windy and Warm.” And during “Money Road,” Leventhal and fellow guitarist Kevin Barry used winding, interweaving guitar lines to bring the first act to a moving climax.
Rounding out the band, in addition to Leventhal and Barry, were bassist Zeb Katz, drummer Dan Rieser, and keyboardist Jon Cowherd.
For the concert’s second half, Cash focused on two eras from her long-running career. She performed three songs from The List, her 2009 album of classic country tunes; the best of these was a bluesy take on Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On.” And she also reached back to the 1980s, a decade in which she scored a string of number one country singles before she retreated from the hit-making machinery to create a more individualistic sound. As she sang her 1981 hit “Blue Moon With Heartache,” with its somber, self-critical tone (“I run into that heartache just like a wall”), it was clear that Cash’s gift for writing perceptive lyrics was in place early on in her career.
The show’s highlight was a transfixing acoustic version of yet another song set in the Mississippi Delta – Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.” With its bluesy and country-inflected melody, and its elliptical, enigmatic storytelling, it was perfect material for Cash. And with their unassuming performance, Leventhal and Cash showed how they can command an audience’s attention with just a guitar and a passionate voice.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including intermission.
Rosanne Cash performed for one night only on Thursday, October 21, 2016, at the Merriam Theater – 250 South Broad Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For future concerts at the Merriam Theater and the Kimmel Center, go to their calendar of events.
Rosanne Cash: The River & The Thread at Strathmore by Vanessa Terzaghi.