Recently the Tiny Goddess and I went to see ROSANNE CASH in concert. I should have seen Rosanne years ago; I've been a fan since "Seven Year Ache," which came out in 1981. But you can't see everything or everyone. So if it took thirty-four years for me to finally see her live, that's OK. The main thing is – the wait was worth it. Rosanne Cash was excellent in concert, and it got me thinking about her ... and other second-generation celebrities.
If you're a "country" singer, you couldn't have a more imposing father than Johnny Cash. Cash was an icon whose image went far beyond "country music." He had an important TV show in the late-60s, he starred in movies and TV shows, and his songs crossed over to the pop charts frequently. He was "The Man In Black" way before Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones were. He played with Dylan on "Nashville Skyline." (It was on Johnny Cash's TV show that Dylan made his first public appearance after his motorcycle accident.) For an aspiring singer like Rosanne, her father couldn't have cast a bigger shadow.
Happily, it turned out that Rosanne was every bit the musician that her father was. In fact, I like her music more. Other than a few major Johnny Cash songs like "I Walk the Line" and "Guess Things Happen That Way" and the admittedly wonderful live at Folsom Prison and San Quentin albums, I prefer Rosanne's music.
Make no mistake: I'm a true fan of "older" country music. Real country music. The first country album I fell in love with was Hank Williams' Greatest Hits. (It was gratifying to see Bruce Springsteen acknowledge the importance of that record – "its beautiful simplicity, its darkness and depth" – in his famous speech at SXSW in 2012, and hear how he played it over and over again.) I often listen to Willie's Roadshow channel on Sirius radio, which plays classic country. I love Ernest Tubb and Webb Pierce and Lefty Frizzell. I just don't particularly like Johnny Cash. Is that heresy? Maybe. But it's the truth.
When I got the tickets for the Rosanne show a long time ago, it was a "Get her off my Bucket List" purchase. I had seen a couple of her sets that were webcast – from "Hardly Strictly Bluegrass" and "Lincoln Center Live – and I knew that she was on a hot streak. What we finally got was a truly exemplary show from a mature artist at the peak of her powers. She led a five-piece band (two guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards) in a simple, direct two-part show that was, in full, a formal presentation of her art. She came out and said, "I have this new album out and I'm going to sing it, from start to finish. Then we'll take a break and come back and play some other stuff." And that's exactly what she did.
You notice she didn't say, "I have this new album out that just won THREE FUCKIN' GRAMMYS!!" Everyone in the audience probably knew that anyway. Instead, she just let the music speak for itself. (She had last won a Grammy in 1986, almost thirty years ago. That's not a bad span of success.)
The album in question – THE RIVER & THE THREAD – is flat-out wonderful: one of the best of her career (along with "King's Record Store" and "Black Cadillac.") It's a series of first-person songs about the South. She and her husband/co-writer /producer/lead guitarist John Leventhal traveled to some selected places: her father's birthplace ... a Civil War site ... Memphis ... the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil ... the Tallahatchie Bridge, etc. And out of the experience, they wrote an album of deeply felt, moody, seductive songs. It's one of those albums that you hear, and you want to hear to again immediately, to fix its particular sound in your mind/brain/ear.
Rosanne and her band performed the album expertly, from first cut to last, with some nice, well-rehearsed-I'm-sure patter between the songs. I should mention that the concert was in one of those massive, blocky, well-constructed-but-weird "performance arts" centers that have sprung up near wealthy ex-urban communities and semi-large state universities all around the country. (Not my favorite kind of venue, and I wish she had played closer to where we live, but she didn't. And I didn't want to let this chance pass by.) The nice thing is that it was in Ventura County, the county where Rosanne was raised. She was born in Memphis but raised in California. So, she said, the concert was sort of a "homecoming." For whatever reason, she sang a very strong show.
After a not-too-long intermission, she came back and did a very – as my son, Calder's Father, would say -- "well-curated" selection of her hits and a few other songs. She opened with a killer "Radio Operator," a sizzler from her BLACK CADILLAC album. She did a couple of country classics from her album THE LIST including a riveting "Ode to Billie Joe." She did the obligatory "Seven Year Ache," her first and greatest hit. Even today, Rosanne has said that, basically, that if she's going to go down in country history, it will be as the woman who wrote and sang "Seven Year Ache."
If there was one song I wanted her to do, it was her cover of John Hiatt's "The Way We Mend A Broken Heart," one of her songs from her hit-making days in the 1980s when she racked up eleven Number One songs, a total of twenty-one Top Forty singles, and two gold records. But I was very satisfied with the show she gave. Rosanne Cash is going to turn sixty in May. She has brain surgery a couple of years ago (for a rare Chiari I malformation). And she had polyps on her vocal cords a few years before that put her out of commission.
Yet on this night, her voice was in superb estate. (Much better than some other singers I could name.) It had the same smoky, sexy, thoughtful quality that smart audiences and critics have loved ever since she started recording. The TG and I saw a mature, thoughtful artist at the top of her game. It was worth the fifty miles – each way – that we drove in order to see her. (Dinner was fine. We came home with leftovers for the next day.)
As Johnny Cash's daughter, Rosanne had a HUGE burden/advantage. But she made the most of it. There are so many inferior second-generation celebrities. Because of Martin Sheen, we've had to endure Charlie Sheen. Because of Judy Garland, we've had to endure Liza Minnelli. But with Rosanne Cash, we have that most unusual case of the second-generation who has matched-or-exceeded the achievement of a very substantial parent. She's on that very short list with Jane Fonda and Jeff Bridges.
I highly recommend buying or downloading Rosanne's THE RIVER & THE THREAD album. But I also recommend – probably even higher – the very economical THE ESSENTIAL ROSANNE CASH from Columbia/Epic. It's a two-disc set that gives you thirty-six cuts including all her greatest hits. And, make no mistake, she cut some terrific singles. Must-have stuff. (I haven't even mentioned her marriage to Rodney Crowell and every great musician who has played on her albums.) Rosanne made the selection herself. I agree with most of her choices. And she still left out a bunch of goodies.
Or buy both. Or just look at her stuff for free on YouTube. (No one has to buy music ever again. But that's the subject for another blog.)
But here are some YouTube links anyway :
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-aKE4D2ync -- an 8-minute "trailer" for THE RIVER & THE THREAD
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ks6GVBSOWsg -- "Blue Moon With Heartache," a song she sang in Ventura
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNxz-r0Na4g -- "The Way We Make A Broken Heart" – the song she didn't sing – from "Austin City Limits" in 1988 (really fine!)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vV0L7jPp9JE -- one more from "Austin City Limits" – Rosanne's Grammy winner from 1985: "I Don't Know Why You Don't Want Me"