Touring the Old State House Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas, Rosanne Cash smiles wryly as she’s greeted by a cardboard cutout of singer and Arkansas native Johnny Cash. Nearby, she pauses to study a movie poster depicting her famous father as a gunslinger.
“I remember that movie,” she says of “A Gunfight,” a 1971 Western starring her dad and Kirk Douglas. “I visited him on the set.”
A frequent visitor to Arkansas in recent years, Rosanne toured an exhibit about the state’s film history in November, when she was honored for her ongoing work with Arkansas State University and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to restore her late father’s boyhood home in Dyess (pop. 410). The northeast Arkansas community was founded in 1934 during the Great Depression as a federal agricultural colony.
“There are a lot of Johnny Cash projects out there that I just say no to,” says Rosanne, 58, of plays, movies and books about the music icon. “And then this one came along and I said, ‘This is important. This is something I want to do.’”
Though born in the South, Rosanne was raised in California and has made New York City her home since 1991. In a serendipitous twist of fate, however, her involvement in the Cash boyhood home project beginning in 2011 reawakened Rosanne to her Southern roots. This month, the singer-songwriter celebrates the Southern experience with release of “The River and the Thread,” her first album in four years.
“I went back to where I was born, and these songs started arriving in me,” she explains.
The eldest of the four daughters of Johnny and his first wife, Vivian, Rosanne was born in 1955 in Memphis, Tennessee—crossroads of the blues, Southern gospel, rock ’n’ roll, and the “hillbilly” sound later known as country music.
She arrived two months before Sun Records released her dad’s first single, “Hey Porter,” which led to a string of hit songs that catapulted the Cash family from poverty to prosperity. At age 3, she moved with her family to Los Angeles, California, for her father’s rising entertainment career. By then, however, the South already had been “imprinted on my soul,” Rosanne says. While she lived the next 15 years on the West Coast, she often spent summers at her dad’s home and farm in Tennessee after her parents divorced in 1966.
Rosanne broke into the music industry after high school as a backup singer for her father, eventually recording her first solo album in Germany and landing a recording contract with Columbia Records in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1981, her self-penned “Seven Year Ache” became a No. 1 country song and crossed over to the pop charts—the first of her many hits, including “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,” “The Way We Make a Broken Heart” and “Never Be You.”
She married singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell in 1979, and together the couple had three daughters—Caitlin, Chelsea and Carrie—before divorcing in 1992. Three years later, Rosanne married John Leventhal, now her co-writer, guitarist, producer and musical partner. They have a son, Jake, 14, and live in Manhattan.
Like a long-lost childhood friend who resurfaces, the South beckoned Rosanne to get reacquainted with her roots after preservationists in Arkansas sought support from the Cash family for the restoration project.
“We went down to Dyess, and the [Cash] house was pretty dilapidated and empty,” recalls Leventhal, 61. “We went there on kind of a cold, late-fall day and it was really moving to me. I could sense what John’s childhood must have been like, and there was kind of a haunted, lonely feeling to it. Some of the songs in his early career started to make more sense to me.”
In 2011 and 2012, Rosanne hosted the first two Johnny Cash Music Festivals in Jonesboro, Arkansas, to raise money for the undertaking. Located about an hour’s drive from where Rosanne was born, the restored Cash home is scheduled to open this spring.
“Rosanne made it clear from the beginning that she wanted to do more than just give lip service to the project,” says Ruth Hawkins, director of the university’s Arkansas Heritage Sites, which is spearheading the restoration. “She stressed her concern for authenticity. She did not want this as a shrine to her father. Rather, it was a way to put her father’s childhood experience into the context of the New Deal and the impact that the Dyess resettlement had on the Cash family and other poor farm families.”
The project inspired Rosanne and Leventhal eventually to visit other key musical and historical landmarks across the Delta region. In Mississippi, they saw William Faulkner’s home in Oxford, and then traveled to Greenwood, where blues musicians Guitar Slim, Furry Lewis and Fenton Robinson were born. In Money, Mississippi, they saw the abandoned candy store where black teen Emmett Till reportedly flirted with a white woman in 1955, leading to his brutal murder and galvanizing the emerging civil rights movement.
“It’s kind of mind-blowing,” Rosanne says. “It’s all right there.”
Musical inspiration struck when Rosanne made a new friend in Natalie Chanin, an artist and clothing designer in Florence, Alabama, who taught her how to sew.
“And as she was threading my needle, she said, ‘You have to learn to love the thread,’ and this chill went over me,” Rosanne recalls. “She wasn’t speaking metaphorically, but it just hit me: We need to write a record about the South, about all of these characters and these places geographically and spiritually, past and future—the thread that runs through it all.”
Cast of characters
The resulting 11 original songs comprise Rosanne’s 16th album, co-written with her husband, which features a large cast of characters such as the sweet married couple in “Etta’s Tune” and the long-suffering wife and mother in “The Sunken Lands,” based on Rosanne’s grandmother and Johnny’s mother, Carrie.
In the Civil War ballad “When the Master Calls the Roll,” co-written with Crowell, Rosanne draws on her ancestors who fought on both sides of the bloody conflict.
“I love the characters in the South,” Rosanne says. “I love the loyalty of people and the kindness and welcoming nature. You make family wherever you go. If you feel connected to them, they are tenacious about staying connected to you.
“And there’s a certain strangeness about the South that’s kind of mystical. It’s what Faulkner wrote about and what Howlin’ Wolf sang about. It’s what my dad wrote and sang about.”