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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Rosanne Cash finally focuses on the songs of father Johnny Cash

Rosanne Cash and Ry Cooder perform Johnny Cash's "Get Rhythm"

Thursday night marked a major moment in Rosanne Cash’s career.

Cash, who has diligently carved out her own estimable niche in popular music first as a major Nashville country artist like father Johnny Cash, then as an intensely intelligent New York-based singer-songwriter whose last album The River & the Thread (2014) win three Grammy Awards and universal acclaim, for the first time focused on her father’s classic song catalog at a Thursday night concert with Ry Cooder at San Francisco’s SFJazz Center.

She acknowledges that the show--the first of a four-night run at the venue--was some 40 years in the making.

“From the very beginning I’ve tried to scratch out my own identity inside a very long shadow,” explains Cash, whose self-titled debut studio album was released in 1978 in Germany but not the U.S.--with her U.S. debut Right or Wrong (1980) effectively launching her on a trajectory of country hit-making signified by ‘80s chart-toppers including “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me” and her signature hit “Seven Year Ache.”

“At this point it’s not so necessary to keep my distance,” she continues, “but I don’t want to co-opt my dad’s work: I’m very different from him, and it doesn’t make sense.”

But when Cooder approached her with the idea of jointly performing Johnny Cash songs in concert, she gave it serious consideration.

“I’ve admired Ry my entire adult life,” says Cash, who’s performed with Cooder in the past. “At first I said, ‘ Oh, no!’ But it didn’t take long before I felt that even though I was a little worried about it, there’s a person, time and place to do it—Ry, now and at this: It provides a different kind of context than doing it, say, at the Country Music Hall of Fame.”

Rather, the SFJazz Center setting proved “enlightening, fascinating and inspiring.”

“John [Cash’s husband and musical collaborator John Leventhal] is the musical director, and built a real world musically that worked,” Cash says, “not that we were mimicking the songs: They’re totally reimagined. The only one that’s pretty close to the original is ‘Hardin Wouldn’t Run’ [from Johnny Cash’s 1965 album Sings the Ballads of the True West], which we’re just doing acoustically, so it’s pretty similar.”

Other songs in the dozen or so that she and Cooder are performing include hits like “Get Rhythm” (also the titletrack of Cooder’s 1987 album) , “Hey, Porter” (recorded on his 1972 album Into the Purple Valley), “Pickin’ Time,” “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” and “a psychedelic version” of “Ring of Fire.” The experience, after the initial concert, is “transcendent,” says Cash.

“I didn’t’ know what to expect! The rehersals were slightly uneven because we were working out a lot of stuff: Even though we knew all the songs, they were new in performing them. But everything jelled into a deeply musical place that went beyond that into kind of a psychic connection across the generations, and it became one of the most special nights of music I’ve ever experienced.”

In fact, Cash “teared up” when Cooder told of first hearing “Hey, Porter,” then played it on Luther Perkins’ guitar—the late Perkins being Johnny Cash’s legendary guitarist in his Tennessee Three backup band of the 1950s and ’60s.

“My brother [John Carter Cash] had it in the vault, and it was deeply moving when Ry played it,” she says. “But the whole night was exhilarating.”

So much so, Cash adds, that she’s now open to doing more of these shows with Cooder. First up, though, is completing her next album, titled She Remembers Everything, for release in October, with Leventhal and Tucker Martine splitting production duties.



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