- - Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Not content being just the daughter of the legendary Johnny Cash, Rosanne Cash has been writing since she was old enough to hold a pencil and jot down her thoughts.

The singer-songwriter has recorded 21 top 40 country singles — 11 that hit No. 1 — and 15 albums. She has written four books and many articles for The New York Times, the Oxford American, Newsweek and other prestigious publications.

“Music inspired me from an early age, and I was naturally drawn to lyrics that tell great stories,” Miss Cash told The Washington Times. “I loved concept records like those of The Beatles. It’s in my nature to know how songs work and how to rhyme in a poetic way.

“Writing is writing, just as acting is acting in movies or on TV, so I can recognize melody in prose. Because you have more rope to hang yourself in prose, it requires some discipline.”

Miss Cash celebrates her Southern heritage in “The River and the Thread,” her latest Grammy Award-winning album and the focus of her eagerly awaited concert at Strathmore on Friday. Backed by her composer/husband John Leventhal on guitar and her band, she will sing about the country, taking the long way home down dark highways and the haunted past.

The songs on “The River and the Thread” took shape as she and her husband journeyed from their home in New York to Memphis, Tennessee, where Sun Records first recorded Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins — the “Million-Dollar Quartet.”

Her concept for “The River and the Thread” took shape earlier, when Arkansas State University expressed interest in purchasing her father’s boyhood home.

By the time the trip was underway, the couple had written “Etta’s Tune,” entailing memories of a musician’s traveling life recalled by the widow of her father’s bass player and close friend. The other songs unfolded as they followed the river toward the Mississippi Delta.

The album abounds with visions of the South from the recent and distant past. “Sunken Lands” depicts the poverty that Miss Cash’s father’s family battled “where the children cry, the work never ends, there’s not a single friend.”

“Money Road” pinpoints the place where Emmett Till was abducted and killed. “When the Master Calls the Roll” addresses the carnage of the Civil War that touched her ancestors fighting for both the Union and the Confederacy, while “50,000 Watts” heralds the promises of prayer.

“Everywhere we went, the images, history and geography all had haunted qualities,” Miss Cash said. “Being on Money Road, which is right around the corner from the Tallahatchie Bridge, gave me even more ideas for songs. Some came easily, but others I had to rewrite and rewrite.

“In a typical case, John gives me the themes, then I write the lyrics on my own and he writes the melody. Sometimes I complete a verse on my own, then give it to him to set to music. We have different strengths, and we play to those strengths. He’s not a lyricist, and I’m not a composer, so we fill in the blanks for each other. I feel lucky we can co-write.”

“A Feather’s Not a Bird,” the album’s opening tune, captured the 2015 Grammy Award for best American roots song.

Miss Cash, nominated for three awards, said she attended the ceremony with a “gut feeling” that she would win one of them. Her delight tripled when she learned that she also won the other two: best American roots performance and best Americana album.

Miss Cash has overcome her share of troubles, including brain surgery in 2007. She wrote about the successful operation for The New York Times in an article titled “Well, Actually it IS Brain Surgery,” which emphasized her courage and determination to move forward.

Miss Cash is especially pleased that the Johnny Cash birthplace project in Dyess, Arkansas, is progressing. His house, built by the Works Progress Administration during the Depression, has been restored and now includes a small museum. The complex aims to ensure that her father’s contributions to American culture are long remembered.

Today, Miss Cash’s active life involves touring, co-writing the music for a Broadway play and co-writing songs for a TV show.

“Some people think songwriting is a hobby, but that isn’t true,” she said. “It’s a vocation and a discipline that I’m committed to.”

Johnny Cash surely would be proud of his daughter, who has given fresh meaning to American roots by taking the long way home.


WHAT: Rosanne Cash in concert

WHERE: Music Center at Strathmore, 10701 Rockville Pike, Rockville, Maryland, 20852

WHEN: Friday, 8 p.m.

INFO: Tickets $27 to $68 by calling 301/581-5100 or emailing tickets@strathmore.org

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