The country singer-songwriter opens up about her southern roots and progressive politics
In late January, Rolling Stone published an online essay under the header, “Why It's Time for Country Stars to Speak Up About Trump,” in which writer Joseph Hudak argued that political dissent from the country music set was essential in this era of “alternative facts.”
“Unlike the liberal pop and hip-hop artists who participated in the Women's Marches around the nation on Saturday, essentially preaching to their choir, country artists possess something unique in igniting change: a kinship with rural America, conservatives and Christians, and the ear of many of those who voted Donald Trump into the presidency,” Hudak wrote.
He also cited one late, loved country legend who never shied from speaking up about social and political issues. “Your apathy would make Johnny Cash roll over in his grave,” he wrote.
“It's true,” said Cash's daughter, country singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, who visits the McCoy Center for the Performing Arts for a concert on Sunday, Feb. 12. “A lot of people who attack me use my dad as a weapon against me. ‘Your dad would be ashamed of you.' My dad protested the Vietnam War. My dad went into prisons and worked on behalf of prisoners' rights. He worked on behalf of Native American rights. He was the most socially conscious musician you could find. He took his cues from Woody Guthrie in that way. It's puzzling people think I'm doing anything different. … I like to use [Rage Against the Machine guitarist] Tom Morello's quote: ‘I didn't realize I had to lay down my First Amendment rights when I picked up my guitar.'”
Cash, like her father, doesn't shy from speaking her mind, particularly when it comes to the current presidential administration. She described Steve Bannon, Trump's chief strategist, as “the most frightening guy on the planet,” and expressed concern with a recent executive order restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. “It's this incremental chipping away at the Constitution,” said Cash, who called herself a “progressive patriot.” “It just breaks my heart. This country was founded on liberty.”
Cash, whose earliest musical memory consists of hearing her dad's deep, graveled voice, has spent the better part of her last three full-length albums both exploring and coming to terms with her past. Black Cadillac, from 2006, and The List, from 2009, find the singer confronting her father's long musical shadow (songs on The List, for example, were culled from a listing of 100 essential country songs her father presented her when she turned 18), while The River & the Thread, released in 2014, more broadly delves into her Southern roots, which Cash said she spent much of her life pushing away.
“It was suffocating, and I just didn't see myself as a Southerner even though both my parents were Southerners,” said Cash, the eldest daughter of Johnny and his first wife, Vivian. “I basically spent a total of 12 years in the South my whole life. I grew up in Southern California and I've lived in New York City for 27 years. But I found what I love about [the region] and what I want to cherish. And that changed me.”
The steady shift started to take place during a series of visits Cash and husband John Leventhal embarked on over a number of years, beginning with a trip to Johnny Cash's childhood home in Dyess, Arkansas.
“How it started was going down and working with Arkansas State University on the restoration project at my dad's boyhood home, and at the same time Marshall Grant, my dad's bass player, died,” Cash said. “[Grant] always told me he was the third person to hold me after I was born. I knew him my whole life. Those two things combined [and] it cracked my heart open.”
Cash and Leventhal later returned for visits to Rosanne's childhood home in Memphis, Tennessee, the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, and to Florence, Alabama, where the musician spent time studying with friend and seamstress Natalie Chanin, whose words inspired the album's title (“She said, ‘You have to love the thread,' and I took it as a big metaphor,” Cash said).
“We were exploring the geography and the past, but the future, too,” Cash said. “Some of that sounds very grand, but the truth is John and I are so completely connected to, influenced by and in love with the music of the South, and it was just a joy to explore that.”
The repeated visits also helped draw the musician closer to her ancestry, particularly Johnny's mother, her grandmother.
“Learning about how hard my grandmother's life was in Arkansas, I started thinking about that tenacity in spirit,” Cash said. “I don't think I could raise seven kids without electricity … but something of that tenacity survives.”