Attuned To Things I Hear: A Conversation with Rosanne Cash

By Brent Thompson

Photo courtesy of the artist

It would be fair to deem Rosanne Cash a country artist, but that description would only tell part of her story. In a career spanning more than 40 years, the eldest daughter of Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian, has delved into folk, rock and pop while garnering four Grammy Awards. In addition to her music career, Cash has written three books and seen her articles published by The New York Times, New York Magazine, Rolling Stone and The Oxford American. In November, she released She Remembers Everything (Blue Note Records), a 10-track collection produced by her husband and musical partner, John Leventhal, and Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket). The album features guest appearances by Kris Kristofferson, Elvis Costello, Sam Phillips and The Decemberists’ frontman Colin Meloy. On Sunday, April 7, Cash will perform in the Jemison Concert Hall at the Alys Stephens Center. Recently, she spoke with us by phone from her New York City home.

Birmingham Stages: Rosanne, thanks for your time. We are looking forward to your Birmingham show on April 7. How does your schedule look until then?

Rosanne Cash: I’ve got two things – one in Nashville and one in Washington. They’re both kind of special things. In Nashville, the show is for the launch of Ken Burns’ [documentary series] Country Music and a lot of people are doing that show. The documentary is amazing. In Washington, the event is at the Smithsonian to launch an exhibit that commemorates the 100th anniversary of women getting to vote. That’s super exciting, too. I go back to my regular shows on the fifth [of April] and work my way to you.

Birmingham Stages: We are enjoying She Remembers Everything. How did the album’s material take shape?

Cash: Two of [the songs] had been around for about a decade – “8 Gods Of Harlem” and “Rabbit Hole.” The rest of them, for the most part, were written recently. John and I wrote “The Undiscovered Country” and “Everyone But Me” while we were at the end of the record – almost everything had been recorded. Those two are really new. I wrote “She Remembers Everything” with Sam Phillips a couple of years ago.

Birmingham Stages: Some stellar guests appear on the album – Kris Kristofferson, Elvis Costello, Sam Phillips and Colin Meloy. How do those collaborations come about? Do they begin with the person or the song in mind first?

Cash: All in different ways. I had written with Sam and knew I’d love to have her sing on the chorus – it just made sense. With Colin, I’m a huge Decemberists fan. Tucker Martine, who produced the tracks “The Only Thing Worth Fighting For” and “Rabbit Hole,” had also produced The Decemberists so I shyly said to Tucker, “Do you think Colin would sing on the record?” He said, “Well, I can only ask him.” And he said, “Yes” – that was a thrill. With Elvis and Kris, I’ve been friends with both of them for decades and I just kept thinking about writing and recording with them. On paper, that made no sense whatsoever but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I had written the first verse to “8 Gods Of Harlem” and I asked them if each of them if they would write a verse. They wrote their verses and we recorded that track in the same day – I’ve never experienced that before.

Birmingham Stages: With the large catalog of material you’ve amassed, how do you construct your set lists these days?

Cash: I don’t do that Willie [Nelson] thing of having all your songs listed on the floor and just picking one [laughs]. I’m a little too controlling for that. I’ve got to say it’s been more challenging because I’ve got a 40-year catalog. There are certain songs the audience wants to hear. They want to hear “Seven Year Ache” and they want to hear “Blue Moon With Heartache,” so I do those and a few from [2009 album] The List because there are people that are big fans of that record. I want to do new songs because it’s fresh, so I balance it out a bit.

Birmingham Stages: Using the two songs you mentioned as examples, how do they stay fresh and relevant to you after you’ve performed them countless times?

Cash: Do you know what keeps it fresh? The audience gets excited when they hear it and that gives me energy and I’m grateful that they still care about a song that’s been around that long. Every audience is new and they bring their own personality and temperament and energy to it, so I just borrow from that. Songs change over time depending what mood I’m in. I was 22 when I wrote “Blue Moon With Heartache,” so now singing it is like singing a song my daughter wrote.

Birmingham Stages: How does your writing process typically work? Are you able to write on the road?

Cash: I think I’m always writing. I’m attuned to things I hear – poetry, something I read or a piece of music starts the ball rolling. I don’t write that much on the road because my energy is pretty taken up, but I think some of my best things have been written on the road. Right now, John and I have been writing a musical – I’m writing the lyrics and he’s composing the music and we’re almost finished. So, those songs have been taking up some mental space lately.

Birmingham Stages: Some artists say this is a great era because music can be easily accessed via iTunes, Youtube and other outlets. Other artists say, for that same reason, it’s difficult to separate yourself from the crowd. How do you reconcile the pros and cons of the current musical climate?

Cash: I’m not an old fuddy-duddy who thinks, “Oh, it was so much better in the old days.” I like progress and what young people are doing. I do think it’s great that more people can get their music out there and they don’t have to filter it through a major label. At the same time, it’s really hard for musicians to get paid right now because people assume that music is in the air and that everybody should have it. In some ways that’s true, but it’s creative work that costs time and money. Musicians need to pay the rent and pay their bills like anybody else. If you buy music, it supports the musicians and they can continue to make music.

Rosanne Cash will perform at the Alys Stephens Center’s Jemison Concert Hall on Sunday, April 7. Tickets to the 7 p.m. show can be purchased at