Rosanne Cash, Ry Cooder, and the long shadow of the Man in Black
Throughout her singing career, Rosanne Cash has tried to avoid directly confronting her father's legacy. Now she's touring with Ry Cooder, performing only Johnny Cash songs at the Met Philadelphia on Sunday.
The Man in Black casts a long shadow.
Rosanne Cash has been living alongside it her whole life.
“It’s not like I haven’t accepted my own family legacy, or don’t appreciate it, or don’t have an understanding of the generational impact or my dad’s place in the history of 20th century music,” the singer-songwriter says. “I get it.”
But this year, Cash says, two deeply rewarding projects have led her to fully embrace that legacy as never before.
One played out over 16 hours on PBS in September. Ken Burns’ documentary, Country Music, used Cash as a principal storyteller of an epic history that began in the 1920s with the Carter Family — into which her father married when he wed her stepmother, June, in 1968 — and ended with Johnny Cash’s death in 2003.
The other brings her and renowned, rarely touring guitarist Ry Cooder to the Met Philadelphia on Sunday for “Cash & Cooder on Cash: The Music of Johnny Cash.” On one of only five U.S. tour dates, she’ll do something she has never done before: spend an entire evening singing her father’s songs.
“I don’t participate in a lot of projects about my dad,” Cash says from her home in New York, where she lives with her husband, guitarist-producer John Leventhal, who will be in the band Sunday. “I’ve spent my life trying to carve out my own spot and be evaluated on my own terms.”
She took part in the Burns opus “because I knew the depth and the magnitude of what they were trying to achieve. And I trusted them," she says of Burns and his chief writer, Dayton Duncan.
“Letting down my guard and talking about it and weaving the personal stories about his career and my own career, it was satisfying in a way like nothing I’ve ever done before,” says the 63-year-old singer.
Cash had no plans to do shows focused on her father’s songs. That was Cooder’s idea.
The musicologist/producer’s long list of collaborators include African guitarist Ali Farka Toure, Hindustani musician V.M. Bhatt, Cuban collective Buena Vista Social Club, and the Rolling Stones.
From the beginning, though, Cooder was a Johnny Cash fan. Growing up Southern California, his life was transformed when he heard “Hey, Porter” on the radio in 1955.
“His voice sounded really big, like he was hiding in a cave somewhere,” the 72-year-old guitarist says by phone from Santa Monica.
For Cooder, the power in the early Cash records recorded with Sam Phillips at Sun Studios in Memphis is that “he sounded scared. Like he was frightened. Like something was about to go wrong, and there was nothing he could do about it.
"All these songs bordered on tragedy....And then I saw this photo of him, with these scary eyes, like eyes back in his head. Like, uh-oh, this man has seen the terror.”
Cooder recorded Cash’s “Get Rhythm” for his 1987 album of that name. His 2008 I, Flathead, includes “Johnny Cash”: “Johnny Cash will never die, buddy can’t you see? He’s up there with the Tennessee Two for all eternity.”
In 2017, Rosanne Cash began an artist-in-residency program at SFJAZZ in San Francisco. For starters, she performed concerts with friends Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris.
Pressed to come up with a new idea, she called Cooder.
“We can do anything we want,” she told him. “He said, ‘Well the only show to do is Johnny.’ And I said, ‘No Ry! No! No, no, no!’ I just had a knee-jerk reaction.”
Cooder recalls telling her, “'If you really want to tell the truth, there’s only one thing to do, and that’s your Dad.’ I just decided to put my foot in it and say it out-loud. Because I didn’t want to go to my grave not ever playing those tunes on stage."
» READ MORE: Ry Cooder, one of the great guitarists of all time, will give his first Philadelphia performance in decades.
When Cash said she had tried to avoid her father’s body of work, Cooder replied, “You’ve established your worth. It’s not like people are going to look askance at you, like you’ve broken faith... In fact, it’s your legacy.”
Leventhal convinced her. “‘This could be great. We could reimagine these songs in a really musical way,’” she remembers him saying. “So I went back to Ry and said, ‘You’re the only person I would do this with.’”
Why? “Because he has a slightly warped sensibility,” Cash says, laughing. “Because he has been profoundly influenced by my dad and loved him deeply and respects him deeply, but he has no desire to mimic him.... He wouldn’t want to — and nor would I — make carbon copies of these songs to just do a tribute concert. I kind of recoil when people say it’s a tribute concert."
Regarding her father’s legacy, Cash tries to limit her involvement each year to the Johnny Cash Heritage Festival in Dyess, Arkansas. She headlined last month with Marty Stuart.
She also wrote liner notes for Bob Dylan: Travelin‘ Thru featuring Johnny Cash, the new box set that focuses on Dylan’s 1960s recording sessions in Nashville and friends’ appearances on network TV’s Johnny Cash Show in 1969.
Her only qualm about the Burns doc — which she calls “magnificent” — is that it hinted at some sort of “acrimonious division between me and my dad. That was never true. I distanced myself from him ... but I never rebelled against him.”
When she was younger, “people seeing through me to try to get to my Dad” rankled her. “But I understand it now... the longing people have for whatever he represented to them.”
When she turned 18, the elder Cash gave her a list of 100 country songs to learn. She recorded 12 on her 2009 album The List. “He had an unusual style of parenting,” she said. “He always said, ‘I can learn so much more from a teenager than I can from people my own my own age.’”
Putting their show together, Cooder and Cash started building a set list with tunes they regularly performed, like “Big River,” a Cooder staple, and “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” Cash’s version of her father’s 1961 song from her 1987 album King’s Record Shop.
There was one song, though, that she shied away from: the steadfast pledge, from 1956, with which he’s most closely identified.
“John [Leventhal] started coming up with arrangements for songs, and said, ‘What about “I Walk The Line?”' I said, ‘I just can’t. I can’t step that far into the shadow.’”
But after the first show, “there was just this feeling of transcendence or ebullience about what we were doing. And so I said, OK, I will do ‘I Walk the Line.’”
“My sister was there the first time I did it, and she was crying," Cash recalls. "... Something became seamless in our history and our family that night. To take something that I’ve looked at peripherally and avoided my whole life, and then to embrace it fully? It was liberating.”
Cash & Cooder on Cash: The Music of Johnny Cash
8 p.m. Sunday at the Met Philadelphia, 858 N. Broad St. $39-$139. 800-653-8000. themetphilly.com.