Traveling Partners

Rosanne Cash & John Leventhal

Volume 115, No. 9September, 2015

Andy Schwartz
Photo: Laura June Kirsch

Photo: Laura June Kirsch

Two decades of sharing life, love and music. Here’s how they make it all work…

Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal are a formidable creative couple. Rosanne’s 21 top-40 country singles – with 11 number-ones – have proved her to be a dynamic voice in popular music and a bona fide heir to the legacy of her iconic father, Johnny Cash. Rosanne joined Local 802 shortly after moving to NYC in 1991. Here she met John Leventhal, who had already established himself as a top studio guitarist and a Grammy-winning producer and songwriter. The rest is a story worth telling, and although much has been written about them individually, this conversation with guitarist and Local 802 Executive Board member Andy Schwartz put them in a dialogue together, offering some rare insights into their lives as a successful working couple.

Andy Schwartz: Congratulations on the great success of your album “The River & The Thread” with its three Grammy Awards and all the critical accolades. This has to be a very exciting time right now.

Rosanne Cash: It definitely is. We knew we were making a good record, but you never know if anybody’s going to hear it, so to get this kind of recognition is gratifying.

Andy Schwartz: It seems that a lot has come together artistically, and this record is a new high in terms of your respective creative powers. Is there a finer focus now in your creativity, or a maturity in your vision of how to craft and perform your original material?

Rosanne Cash: I think we really learned how to appreciate each other’s strengths more. We learned which battles to fight, and we let the battles be in the service of making a better record rather than just getting personal about stuff. We’ve both been doing it a long time, and this was one of those moments where the sum became greater than the parts. We brought our best selves to this and learned how to really collaborate. We wrote the best songs of our lives, and it was a nice chemical reaction.

John Leventhal: I just think we’re getting better. Rosanne is at the height of her powers as a lyricist and a singer and I like to think I’m at the top of my game as a composer and record maker. It dovetailed.

Photo: Larry Hirshowitz

Photo: Larry Hirshowitz

Andy Schwartz: It’s always interesting when you see a couple with so much creativity. How did you meet?

Rosanne Cash: I had already separated [from former husband Rodney Crowell] and John and Rodney were producing Jim Lauderdale together. That’s when we first met. Then my whole scene changed and my marriage fell apart. I came to New York, John and I met up again, and we made “The Wheel” together. The truth is we fell in love making that album. The songs that John and I wrote together were an eye-opener for me. I wrote the lyrics to “Seventh Avenue” on a napkin at the Bottom Line while seeing Leo Kottke. And I gave them to John and he wrote that melody and I went, “Wow!” At some level I thought, “This is my soul mate.”

Andy Schwartz: “The River & The Thread” contains songs that are highly cinematic, full of imagery. Can you give us an idea of what the concept was behind the record?

John Leventhal: In 2011, we took a trip down south because Arkansas State University was involved in restoring Johnny Cash’s childhood home. It was a moving experience. We visited Delta river towns and a feeling started to percolate that this was a special place, haunted and beautiful. Also, Memphis was this place of incredible creativity, with white and black musicians listening to each other. I had an epiphany that the way we could make Rosanne’s record was to write about this. The thing I always wanted to do was take a drive from Memphis to New Orleans down Highway 61. I kept putting it off and putting it off, and then when I turned 60, my wife kindly went with me and we had an incredible time.We saw all kinds of things – we saw Robert Johnson’s grave, the Tallahatchie bridge, Dockery Farms. It was a fantastic trip.

Rosanne Cash: We visited William Faulkner’s house, too.

John Leventhal: And we visited Florence, Alabama, which is where Muscle Shoals is. We had a friend there – she’s compelling, she makes clothes and she used this phrase…

Rosanne Cash: She was threading my needle and John was taking this little iPhone movie of our hands, and she said, “You gotta learn to love this thread.”

John Leventhal: And I said to myself, “OMG…here are the songs, the songs are coming.” But it’s one thing to say that and another to actually grab them and do it. We eventually agreed we were going to make an album about the south, but we didn’t know what that meant until we started writing the songs and understood what we wanted to say.

Rosanne Cash: We really had “Sunken Lands” and “Etta’s Tune” first, and I had the chorus to “A Feather’s Not a Bird” and that was the beginning.

John Leventhal: Once we had those three, those were all powerful templates, and they were all derived from actual things. The first phrase of “Sunken Lands” was “five cans of paint” because Rosanne had told me about the house her dad grew up in, built by the WPA, in the 1930s. When the family first got to the house, there were five empty cans of paint waiting on the porch…

Rosanne Cash: The cans of paint were there. My dad and his family walked in and there’s the smell of this freshly-painted home. Dad was three years old and said that was his first memory.

John Leventhal: That’s how it started – it started from the personal and then it expanded to not being our stories at all.

Rosanne Cash: I had this insight about getting into other people’s heads and writing from their point of view. That led to “When the Master Calls the Roll” and that was about those people – they were visceral.

John Leventhal: There was one song that held the bar high for what we were trying to do, which was “Ode to Billy Joe” [by Bobbie Gentry]. We had visited the Tallahatchie Bridge and were very moved. That song is nothing short of a miracle, on every level, as a song, as a performance, as a record. The trick is to not copy it but use it somehow and by osmosis try to take what that creative template is and shift it into who you are.

Rosanne Cash: John’s right. When we were taking these drives, we were listening to Tony Joe White and Bobbie Gentry, listening to a lot of blues and really just immersing ourselves and that country pop thing that Bobbie did with the cascading strings. But it was really rooted in acoustic guitar. That was really inspiring to us, and the story of course, how cinematic it was. And Elton John heard our record and after hearing it a few times he wrote me and said, “The strings on ‘Ode to Billy Joe’…the penny just dropped.”

John Leventhal: He said that about “A Feather’s Not a Bird.” If you listen to it, I’m not copying what’s there, it’s informed by it.

Rosanne Cash: That’s the original part, but we’re part of a tradition and you have to respect the tradition.

Photo: Sam Rayner

Photo: Sam Rayner

Andy Schwartz: Rosanne, has life as a New Yorker over the last 25 years given you a special perspective when you’re looking at the south now, when you’re looking at your own heritage? How does the time away affect the way you look back at those roots and at that part of the country?

Rosanne Cash: As John says, we couldn’t have written these songs had we still lived in the south. They required distance and experience outside of the south. And that’s absolutely true. My experience as a New Yorker has made my writing better. It’s thickened my skin and opened my heart, and that’s what you need instead of a thin skin and diffuse emotional life: thick skin but a really creatively open heart. That’s a feeling I’m trying to articulate. And, oddly, I have been able to embrace the south more as a New Yorker, going back with distance and perspective and seeing these people I knew and loved and seeing the very geography. Greenwood, Mississippi and Dockery Farms – all those places are haunted, and the very primordial earth that all of this rose from, that we borrow from, is still there and still hangs in the air. If we didn’t know it before playing Dockery Farms this summer, it just cemented that information for us. When we were driving down Money Road to Robert Johnson’s grave to Money, Mississippi, to where Emmet Till was killed, John said that we’ve got to write a song about Money Road. We couldn’t have written it when we were there. We had to come back to New York and see the images and feel what it was like. Then you start assimilating it. I thought I already knew about race and race relations and racism and I learned so much about that – the heartache of all the suffering that the blues came from and that music came from, and the respect I feel for what we borrow from as white roots musicians.

Andy Schwartz: It’s an incredible thing to share the cultural worlds like that, and then you have the Carter family, the music of the church finding its way into a more secular world.

Rosanne Cash: Those things were the lynchpins that we knew we were respecting without irony: Appalachian music, the Celtic, Scotch-Irish connection, and southern gospel and field songs. John wrote “A Feather’s Not a Bird” as if it could be sung without music, like a field song. So we knew what we were borrowing from and with great respect.

Andy Schwartz: Rosanne, your hometown is Memphis. It crops up in the lyrics, and images of the south and uniqueness of its people are all over the songs. One of the songs is titled “Your Southern Heart” and I’m wondering if there’s a quintessential “southern heart” that you wanted to expose to listeners who have yet to experience the south.

Rosanne Cash: That was part of what I was discovering when I was writing these songs. Some of the answers I’ve come away with are about the loyalty of southern people. If you were born in the south, or you live in the south, or you have some connection to the south – if your parents were southerners – they embrace you as one of them, and that is such a beautiful sense of loyalty. I saw it even in June Carter’s family when I first met them. I was one of them and I just love that. That kindness is definitely part of a southern heart. And there’s a certain work ethic. I don’t know if this is true for everyone in my own family, but it was for my father and my grandfather and my uncles – and my grandmother, of course, who raised seven children and picked cotton. And I started thinking about what is it of her that survives in me and my children, that tenacious thing. I asked her once how she did it. She said, “You just endure. You just endure it.” And modern people aren’t willing to endure as much. I thought a lot about that.

John Leventhal: It’s probably generational. But our album isn’t an analytical record; we weren’t trying to figure anything out. It’s just an impressionistic journey.

Rosanne Cash: Well, I was actually trying to figure some things out but didn’t know until later on. Like what in me is southern and what does that mean. How am I still connected to my ancestry.

John Leventhal: Was that more after the fact?

Rosanne Cash: I think so…it was something that came later on. And this deep love. Truthfully, in the past, when I would go down south – particularly to Nashville – I would feel my stomach clench when I got off the plane.

John Leventhal: When I first met you, you were more like that – more rejecting of the south.

Rosanne Cash: Too suffocating. I’m judged, I can’t do it. Now when we go to the south, I just soak it up. I go back to Florence and see Natalie; I’m just so excited. We go to the studios in Memphis; I love going.

John Leventhal: I had more of the outsider’s love of it. It was part of my childhood mythology, like growing up and loving the Beach Boys and thinking a certain way about Los Angeles. It’s not the same, but the mythic part feels great.

Rosanne Cash: What’s odd is that I had more to discover than he did. And more to learn because I had pushed away. But I have found that what I push away the most, I end up embracing the closest.

John Leventhal: But I’m an outsider. Sometimes it takes an outsider to sort of just hover. The two of us strive each in our own way for real feeling. We’ re looking for something lyrically, melodically, harmonically, rhythmically that leaves us with some real feeling.

Andy Schwartz: Rosanne, you mentioned in your concert program notes that John served as something of a conceptual guide for this record. How did that come about?

Rosanne Cash: From the beginning, “guide” is a very good word because there is a moment in driving through Arkansas where John stopped in Osceola at a sign mentioning that Albert King and Reggie Young are from here. So we got out and I still have this image of him standing in front of that sign saying, “There’s something here we can write about.”

John Leventhal: I was flipping out.

Rosanne Cash: And we were on the way to Dyess, Arkansas, where my dad lived and then we went back to Memphis. I was totally into writing a record that was based in the south like that , but I was more about my experience of the south, and he kept wanting to write about other characters. So in that way he was a guide. Pushing me vocally, I guess. And the landscape of his melodies. I mean he’s a great arranger, too. I don’t know that the public really knows that. They know he’s a great producer and a great musician but his arrangements are really complex and refined and beautiful, and when they’re complex, they’re simple.

Photo: Cen Kurosman

Photo: Cen Kurosman

Andy Schwartz: What does John bring to your partnership as a writer and a producer that has proved so successful for you both? What does your partnership mean when you’re creating a record like this?

Rosanne Cash: You can’t overstate his part of it because there are voicings he can hear and I can’t arrange like he can. So he has a larger overview than I do. I have my instincts about how I should sing something or a melody; we sometimes argue about changing particular notes in particular melodies. He’ll challenge me on a line. I think we’ve learned when to really dig in our heels and stand our ground. But he’s a visionary. Honestly, I’m not as much of a visionary as he is. I’m a visionary about individual songs, but when it comes to an enormous landscape, I can get an idea in a picture but he can get the specifics.

Andy Schwartz: What does it take to manage an all-encompassing life together and succeed? What advice do you have for our members who may be married and working together in musical partnership?

John Leventhal: Count to ten! It’s challenging. Everybody has their challenges; we’ve had our ups and downs like a lot of couples. We’re on a nice little up right now, which I appreciate as I get older. I think the thing I’ve discovered, and maybe Rosanne might agree with me, is that when you’re younger and you’re starting out, you’re more reactive – immediately reactive, emotionally reactive – and you’re more prone to protecting your turf: your philosophical turf, your emotional turf, the part of you that can get hurt easily, the part of you that feels arrogant and strong. You’re prone to react, more or less immediately, at the moments where you get stirred up by your partner, which – let’s face it – happens in most marriages. As it’s gone on, we’ve both learned to recognize, “I’m getting stirred up right now, but I don’t necessarily have to react to it. I can just wait and react later.” That really works. It’s amazing. If you let a few moments go by, that sense of urgency to react doesn’t seem as important. And so a lot of times nothing needs to be said or done about it, and things get smooth. Music making is especially hard.

Rosanne Cash: Number one, recognize the good things. It can be really romantic to work in a really deep, transcendent creative way with the person you love and to take that into the rest of your life, like into your pillow talk and your kitchen fights. And number two, I think he’s right: count to ten. Number three, I try really hard not to take things personally in the studio, but sometimes I still do. If he doesn’t like a note or if he thinks I’m not singing it correctly or I’m not singing as well as I could or if he wants to change a line – remember that it’s not personal, it’s really in the service of making the song better. Sometimes we’re mad at each other. I talked to Diana Krall about this because she’s one of the few people I know who also works with her husband – Elvis Costello – as fellow musician, and we have an identical experience: you can be in a fight, and then you see him perform and you see his essence, you see him giving his best self to the audience and you see his gifts – and you love him.

John Leventhal: For all the struggles and how difficult it is to be a married couple who works together, I will say that a great performance is pretty great; it brings us together. I left out what I think is number one: by the far the most important thing is humor.

Rosanne Cash: Humor is great. Music is the great healing force and I’ve found that so many times I walk out on stage with John and I see what he’s doing and my heart just expands.

Andy Schwartz: Rosanne, you did a residency in 2014 for the Library of Congress and now Carnegie Hall has invited you to curate its Perspective series this fall. What’s your plan for the shows and who will be appearing?

Rosanne Cash: They said you can choose any theme you want and do between three and six shows so I said I’ll do four shows. I said I want to do it on southern roots music, obviously, after doing the “The River & The Thread.” So I started thinking about which tent poles did I want to stick in the ground. I thought about soul, virtuoso mandolin and guitar. I don’t do western swing but I thought that was an area I hadn’t really gotten into or brought in so I thought that would be a small part of it. I just adore the band St. Paul and the Broken Bones and I thought they were the best young soul band that was doing it without a drop of irony and with a real respect for tradition. They’re also great performers, like a post-modern James Brown. So that was an obvious one. The Time Jumpers, because I’ve been friends with Vince Gill for 35 years and because the band is totally badass. They are all virtuosos.And then Ry Cooder. Ry said he had just done this showcase with Ricky Scaggs. Just three songs or something – he said it was really fun. Ry doesn’t tour. And I thought about that a lot and I started e-mailing with Ry and I said would you and Ricky want to put a show together. And he got interested in the idea. Then he really got into it and now they’re touring, so I feel like I had something to do with that. Ricky is one of the greatest virtuosos alive today and Sharon White has that pristine Appalachian bluegrass thing and it’s Ry – he’s the coalescence of so many roots styles. And then the last show is me.

Andy Schwartz: The shows sound really wonderful. I’m sure our members will want to come out to hear you both and all these very special artists at Carnegie Hall. Thank you, Rosanne and John, for sharing your story. And again, our congratulations on a year of much deserved recognition!

WANT MORE MUSIC? Read Andy Schwartz’s exclusive interview with John Leventhal, and more on Rosanne Cash’s views on union solidarity.