Rosanne Cash At The Library Of Congress

  • John Leventhal and Rosanne Cash
    Photo: Kris Connor/Getty Images

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By Larry Nager
Washington, D.C.

On Dec. 5 Rosanne Cash opened The Long Way Home: Songs Of Travel And Longing, her three-night residency at the Library of Congress, in a literary mood.

"When I was an 11-year-old girl spending Saturdays at the library, I could never imagine [this]," said the GRAMMY-winning singer/songwriter with a huge smile, surveying the sold-out crowd packing the LoC's Coolidge Auditorium inside what she called "the most beautiful building in America."

Along with her husband, co-writer/guitarist John Leventhal, Cash premiered her forthcoming album, The River & The Thread (out Jan. 14, 2014) playing some songs in public, she said, for only the second time. Featuring 11 original songs that paint a literary picture of Southern life with stories of family and friends, the album is the third installment in Cash's Southern trilogy, following 2009's GRAMMY-nominated The List, which featured unique versions of classic material culled from her father's list of country's 100 greatest songs, and 2006's Black Cadillac, the posthumous tribute to her father, country icon Johnny Cash.

Cash, Leventhal and their fine band — keyboardist Glenn Patscha, bassist Jeff Hill and drummer Dan Rieser — played through The River & The Thread in sequence, moving from the shimmering swamp-blues of "A Feather's Not A Bird" to stories of her father's earliest memory, "The Sunken Lands," and "Etta's Tune," an ode to Etta Grant, widow of her father's longtime bassist, the late Marshall Grant, to the full-tilt pop/rock of "Modern Blue." The latter hearkened to her '80s era as queen of country's new wave, racking up 11 No. 1 Billboard Country Singles, but the lyrics told of her musical journey: born in West Tennessee, raised in California and, for the past 20 years, a New Yorker. After all that, she sang, "I ended up in Memphis, Tennessee."

That insider/outsider viewpoint shone throughout the night. "World Of Strange Design" mixed William Faulkner-inspired lyrics with her father's trademark "boom-chick-a-boom" rhythm, while "Tell Heaven" brought a touch of Southern gospel buoyed by Leventhal's Mark Knopfler-esque guitar work and "50,000 Watts" paid tribute to Memphis' WDIA-AM, the first U.S. black-staffed radio station. "When The Master Calls The Roll," co-written by GRAMMY winner Rodney Crowell, told of Cash's Civil War-era ancestors in an Irish folk setting.

On display this night was the complete Rosanne Cash: writer, musician, performer, and world-class singer. After performing The River & The Thread, her band left the stage and, backed only by Leventhal's guitar, Cash sang two songs that inspired her musical odyssey: Bobbie Gentry's "Ode To Billie Joe" and, from The List, "Long Black Veil." The band returned with a slow-burn on Hank Snow's "I'm Moving On," followed by Bob Dylan's "Girl From The North Country."

The final encore featured a reinvented cover of Harlan Howard's "Heartaches By The Number," mixing influences from Ray Price's Texas shuffle version and the Rolling Stones' Memphis strut on "Honky Tonk Women." She also revisited two of her earliest songs, the achingly poignant "Blue Moon With Heartache" and her edgy breakthrough hit "Seven Year Ache."

But the performance that revealed most about today's Rosanne Cash was her residency's namesake, "The Long Way Home."

"You thought you'd left it all behind," she sang. "You thought you'd up and gone. But all you did was figure out how to take the long way home."

It was a journey worth joining as Cash's Library of Congress residency proved you can go home again, returning her to her Southern roots with passion and grace and some of the finest songs of her career.

Set List:

The River & The Thread Set:
"A Feather's Not A Bird"
"The Sunken Lands"
"Etta's Tune"
"Modern Blue"
"Tell Heaven"
"The Long Way Home"
"World Of Strange Design"
"Night School"
"50,000 Watts"
"When The Master Calls The Roll"
"Money Road"

Second Set:
"Ode To Billie Joe" (Bobbie Gentry cover)
"Long Black Veil" (originally written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin)
"I'm Movin' On" (Hank Snow cover)
"Girl From The North Country" (Bob Dylan cover)
"Blue Moon With Heartache"
"Seven Year Ache"
"Heartaches By The Number" (Harlan Howard cover)

To catch Rosanne Cash in a city near you, click here for tour dates.

(Larry Nager is a Nashville-based writer, musician and documentary filmmaker. A proud former Memphian, he is the author of Memphis Beat [St. Martin's Press] and the writer and co-producer of the film Bill Monroe: Father Of Bluegrass Music. He has been a member of the Memphis Chapter for more than 25 years.)

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