Rosanne Cash on Rare Performance, Father's Memories and Next Steps

Singer is this month's artist-in-residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame, where a special time in her father's life is celebrated

Rosanne Cash is the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's Artist in Residence this month. Credit: Robin Little/Redferns

When Rosanne Cash was given the opportunity to present three unique performance experiences as the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's latest artist-in-residence, she knew she had to make them count. Earlier this month, the former Nashvillian who now lives in New York began with a show that spotlighted her multiple-Grammy-winning LP, The River and the Thread, a brilliant travelogue that explores her Southern roots, both musically and personally. Special guests that night, during which the entire album was performed in sequence, included Tony Joe White, Cory Chisel and Lucinda Williams.  

Williams also returned to join Cash again the following night, along with Country Music Hall of Fame member Emmylou Harris, giving the three hugely influential singer-songwriters a chance to do something they hadn't before – and may not ever do again. For two hours, the longtime friends traded songs and swapped stories with one another to the delight of a rapt crowd at the museum's CMA Theater.

Cash's artist-in-residence appearance coincides with the extraordinary exhibit, "Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City," which for the daughter of Johnny Cash is like stepping inside a larger-than-life-sized family scrapbook, with the monumental influence her ancestors have had on music and popular culture on full display. The exhibit is, according to Cash, a template of herself as both a songwriter and a person in many ways.

This week's performance caps a month in which Cash was also seen onscreen in the CMT documentary, Johnny Cash: American Rebel. A penetrating look at the life and career of the iconic entertainer, the film aired on September 12th, the 12th anniversary of the day Cash died at 71 years old. While Rosanne is often asked to participate in TV specials and other projects reflecting on her father's legacy, she is, by her own admission, "very, very selective." The only things she has said yes to in the last few years have been the restoration project of Cash's boyhood home in Arkansas and the CMT film.

"That's very close to my heart," Cash tells Rolling Stone Country of the five-room house in Dyess, Arkansas, that is now open to the public. "And I did an interview in the CMT movie, only because I know the CMT people, I knew it was a good team and my brother asked me to. The preservation of his legacy, it's done. There's nothing to worry about. It's not going to go away."

The exhibit, which has also been memorialized in a beautifully rendered book which features an essay by Rosanne, has also given her a sense of well-being, knowing the artifacts are in safe keeping at the massive downtown museum, which has recently been expanded and enhanced to allow more items to be on display.

"It's a great feeling," she explains. "It feels like our things are safe, they're preserved. I'm incredibly proud of that and grateful to them. They are a world-class museum. They've taken the time to collect these things and take exquisite care of them and educate people. The Dylan-Cash exhibit is phenomenal. A lot of people don't know about the Nashville Cats and the music that was created around that time in Nashville. They should know; it was an important time and an important part of American history."

While the legacy that artists such as Cash, Harris and Williams have established for future generations, especially for women in the music business, is more contemporary, Cash saw participating in the artist-in-residency as a chance to seize on something that is not likely to be duplicated – and certainly never to be equaled – any time soon.

"Life is short. This may be the only opportunity to create this space for the three of us to do it," she acknowledges. "That's precious. I don't think it will ever happen again. If it does, it'll be a boon. But it won't happen like that again."

The collaboration proved especially moving for Williams, who at one point during the show began to fight back tears. Harris explained that just as Williams had recently lost her father, she, too, has been grieving, with the recent death of her mother.

"We all walked off stage and we all said that was one of the most moving shows any of us has ever done," Cash explains.

Although Cash has yet to begin work on a follow-up to The River and the Thread, she did just re-sign with the label that issued the album in 2014, Blue Note Records. In spite of staying incredibly busy, she acknowledges that she and husband/producer John Leventhal didn't let the LP's huge success pass by unnoticed.

"I really did consciously try to take it all in because that doesn't come around again," she says. "That was a really, really special thing for John and me. I wanted to feel it. I wanted to enjoy it and I did. We were doing a lot of shows and a lot of other things were going on, so it's not like I sat around and reveled in it for days. But I do still think back on it and go, 'This is the year that happened. This is a great, great year for me.'"

Currently, Cash and Leventhal are writing the music for a play, although she's keeping mum on details for now.

"We're just in the early stages of that, meeting with the director and the book writer," she says. "They haven't announced it yet. I also wrote three songs for True Detective this season and John has just finished producing an album on soul singer William Bell."

Cash takes the stage for the third and final artist-in-residence performance at the museum on Thursday, September 24th, sharing the spotlight with her husband and giving the already sold-out crowd its first-ever opportunity to see a full Nashville concert by the duo, who have been performing together for the past 20 years.