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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Rosanne Cash, with Ry Cooder's help, finally sings her father's songs

Rosanne Cash and Ry Cooder perform the Johnny Cash classic "Long Black Veil"

As a commentator, Rosanne Cash was a high point of several episodes of Ken Burns’ recently programmed PBS Country Music documentary series, her frequent contributions, especially on her father’s life and career, as insightful and eloquent as her own work as an artist and essayist.

As a performer, however, Cash until last year shied away from performing her father’s music. As she explained then, “From the very beginning I’ve tried to scratch out my own identity inside a very long shadow.”

Recapping her change of heart Nov. 2 at Carnegie Hall, she recalled that as artist-in-residence at SFJAZZ Center in 2017-18, she wanted to top her 2017 performance there with Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams, and nervously asked Ry Cooder to join her for four shows in 2018. Cooder agreed to do so on the condition that they sing her father’s songs—to which she responded, “That’s exactly what I’ve been avoiding for 40 years!”

But in those 40 years Rosanne Cash carved out her own singular space in the pantheon of pop music—as, of course, did Cooder: Early in the Carnegie Cash and Cooder on Cash: The Music of Johnny Cash show he related how he was a bored fourth-grader in Santa Monica until he heard the Johnny Cash & the Tennessee Two (guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant) classic “Hey Porter” on the local country radio station in 1955.

“I knew it wasn’t about Santa Monica—and from another place,” Cooder said concerning the Cash original about requesting assistance from a train’s porter. “It was a good thing there were only three-to-five notes to figure out on a guitar—which is important for a kid who wanted to learn.”

Learn it he did, and Cooder credited the song—and Cash—for helping him get through fourth grade. And now with Perkins long gone, he noted that his guitar is still with us, and sure enough, he picked it up and used it to perform “Hey Porter” right then and there.

“I felt that if it were the right time and right place [to perform Johnny Cash songs], it was here [at Carnegie Hall],” said Cash afterward, “and here we are.”

And so it went. The rest of her set consisted entirely of songs written and recorded by Cash, except for “Long Black Veil,” Lefty Frizzell’s 1959 hit that was written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin (and included in Rosanne’s 2009 The List album of “required” country songs assigned by her father for her to learn). She dug deep and detailed realistic songs like her father’s 1958 album track “Pickin’ Time,” which reflected his childhood years picking cotton at his poor family’s farm in Arkansas.

Such songs, noted Cooder, “had some meat on the bones,” unlike so much other pop music of the period. He also singled out Cash’s 1958 recording “Get Rhythm,” the titletrack for Cooder’s 1987 album, and warmly remembered how Cash thanked him for covering it.

Cooder’s take on “Get Rhythm” was a concert high point. Less successful was his alt-country interpretation of “Ring of Fire.” Then again, excellent as the band was (besides Cooder on guitars, Cash occasionally on acoustic guitar, her husband/musical director John Leventhal on guitars, Mark Fain on bass guitar and Cooder’s son Joachim Cooder on drums), the song is so marked by Cash’s mariachi horn fanfare that it’s hard to relate with musically outside of that context. Likewise, it’s next to impossible for anyone to sing a Johnny Cash song and approach the unique command of the original voice.

But there is one artist who can in fact sing a Johnny Cash song without paling in comparison: Even with a voice as pure and steady as her father’s was rocky and rough-hewn, Rosanne Cash is genetically predisposed to sing his lyrics with the same intense commitment and lack of any artifice.

The Cash-Cooder collaboration was at its best on the Johnny Cash signature “I Walk the Line,” with Cooder embellishing the sparsely produced original with slide guitar splashes (Leventhal provided the firm acoustic guitar groundwork) while Rosanne Cash gave the lyrics a lovely, unembellished reading. And on “I Still Miss Someone,” her slow and deliberate pacing, different but no less expressive than that of her father, had an aching vulnerability that only she could evince.

You could feel the loss expressed in the song throughout the entire Cash/Cooder The Music of Johnny Cash concert—a loss that never goes away--be it of a lover, friend, father. In keeping with the father’s promise to his own mother of closing with a gospel song, the ensemble gave new meaning to “I’ll Fly Away.” It is now a treasured heritage that has been handed down from father to daughter and built upon by the latter, and one hopes that Rosanne Cash now fully embraces it.



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