Touching the ‘gumbo soul’: Rosanne Cash to perform at Carolina Theatre

Mar. 14, 2014 @ 12:01 AM

In the introduction to her 2010 book “Composed: A Memoir,” Rosanne Cash writes, “For me music has always involved journeys, both literal and metaphoric.” Her new collection of songs, “The River & the Thread,” is the product of a journey through the South, as Cash and her husband and collaborator, John Leventhal, traveled, in the words of one of the new songs “to touch the gumbo soul.”

The journey began when Arkansas State University contacted her about helping to restore her father Johnny Cash’s childhood home in Dyess, Ark. The Cash family and the university have partnered to present the annual Johnny Cash Music Festival to raise money to restore the home and Dyess, which was a Works Progress Administration farming community.
Rosanne Cash and Leventhal toured many places in the region – bluesman Robert Johnson’s gravesite, William Faulkner’s home, and the studio of Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn., where her father first recorded.
Born in Memphis, Rosanne Cash grew up in California, and while she had been to Memphis many times, she had not been to Alabama or Mississippi, and had not visited Arkansas much. Traveling the region was like “connecting with your long lost sister,” Cash said. “There was this sense of family connection, spiritual connection, geographical connection. … These places were part of my past, my parents’ past,” she said. “And also to go into the Delta, which is part of my musical past, that was very moving.”
The first song to emerge from this journey was “Etta’s Tune,” dedicated to Etta Grant, the widow of Marshall Grant, Johnny Cash’s bass player. Leventhal, who also produced, arranged and played guitar on the recording, “co-wrote all the songs,” Cash said. “This was a totally collaborative project with him. He actually conceptualized the whole album before I did.”
“Etta’s Tune” and many other songs on this recording express the journey theme, the Faulknerian idea that the past never leaves us. In “Etta’s Tune,” Cash sings, “I tore up all the highways / Now there’s nothing left to say / A mile or two from Memphis / And I finally made it home.” In “Modern Blue,” she sings, “I went to Barcelona on the midnight train / I walked the streets of Paris in the pouring rain / … And I ended up in Memphis, Tennessee.” In “The Long Way Home,” the lyric is “You thought you’d left it all behind / … But all you did was figure out / How to take the long way home.”
Most of the recording was done at Leventhal’s studio, a few blocks from where they live in New York, Cash said. “Some of it was like building a Lego: You start at the bottom and we refined and pulled away,” she said. Some songs have the live-in-the-studio feel.
“When the Master Calls the Roll” is the exception, which was recorded at the home of Rodney Crowell (Cash’s former husband) in Tennessee. The “Master’s Choir” includes Kris Kristofferson, Amy Helm, John Prine, Tony Joe White and Crowell. She and Leventhal were going to Nashville and heard that Kristofferson would be there, along with Prine and White, and they got together for the session. “It was worth the whole experience just to see these men greet each other,” she said. “It was so beautiful, so moving. That was the only thing we recorded outside of New York City.”
The fundraising for the restoration of her father’s childhood home is progressing, Cash said, with an opening planned in August. The home is part of the Dyess Colony, established in 1934 as a farming resettlement community, one of many New Deal programs. Johnny Cash grew up there until he graduated high school. The entire community is being refurbished, and the house will include artifacts from her father’s childhood, but not his career, Rosanne Cash said.
“The River & the Thread” is Cash’s 15th album, and has received much critical acclaim and audience accolades. “It’s been kind of overwhelming how great the record’s been received,” Cash said. “People love story songs, and they’re really drawn into the landscape and stories that this record has. It’s been really satisfying.”

Go and Do

WHAT: Rosanne Cash in concert
WHEN: Today, 8 p.m.
WHERE: The Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St.
ADMISSION: Tickets start at $36. To purchase, call 919-560-3030 or visit www.carolinatheatre.org.