BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Though she comes from a long line of musicians, singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash is constantly moving on. To prove that, Cash will be one of the celebrated performers on PBS Nashville 2.0: the Rise of Americana, a documentary on the impact of roots-based American music premiering Friday.
Rosanne, daughter of singer Johnny Cash and his first wife, credits that heritage for some of her talent.
Part of it is DNA, going back even before my father, because his grandfather was a choir leader in a Baptist church in Arkansas, she says.
And, before that, we were Scottish minstrels before we even came to America. So I think the DNA has kind of coalesced over the centuries. But also, of course, its what I grew up around. Music was currency in my family. It was a language. If you didnt know how to say how you felt in words, you had songs to say how you felt.
Though she was constantly exposed to his music as a child, her dad never dispensed advice about career.
My father would have never sat me down and said, This is how you do it. He never gave unsolicited advice, ever. You had to ask him for it. But I did sit in the wings and watch a few thousand of his shows, and just how he connected with an audience was always of great interest to me. I mean, I cant do what he did, but just the willingness to want to connect, I think I got that from him.
The Americana movement
Fridays show, which is part of PBS Arts Fall Festival, is produced by Terry Stewart, former CEO and president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. Americana is not something new, he explains. It goes back even as early as 1947 when Capitol Records started the Americana label and tried to hide race music and folk music and Western music and hillbilly music under one label.
But whats really important it is a movement, and its time is truly now We lose track of how often music changes and morphs and moves on, and I think, now, we are seeing part of that period, he says.
The story is being told. You can understand the words, all of the, sort of, classic cliches that you hear about it. I think its there on the charts now. I dont think we have to wait for it. If you look at the plethora of artists at South by Southwest or any of these other festivals where they are sitting side by side with heavy metal groups and really winning the day, I mean, its just one of those moments in time where the music has shifted.
Cash says shes not only influenced by her past, but by a variety of modern musical genres, I listen to everything, she says. Probably, the one that would most surprise you is Miles Davis. Miles Davis got me through a divorce. I just listened to that record obsessively, Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain as well. But I listen to everything, everything from the Decemberists to Bill Monroe to Aaron Copland.
Melody, real songwriting, tradition
Americana music not only acknowledges the roots of country music, but it celebrates the poetry of the songwriting, says Cash.
Its about real songwriting, the craft of songwriting, not six people putting together a sequence of beats, but a real song that has a narrative arc and a melody and imagery. And the other part is I think that we respect the tradition we came from. We know our folk music and Appalachian and Delta blues, and all of that has become part of the river that goes into whats now called Americana. So melody, real songwriting, tradition, thats a good start.
Cash says her approach to songs has changed over the years. Her focus when she was 23 is different from what it is now. Ray Charles said, You are a better singer at 50 than you are at 25 because the life youve lived shows up in your voice. And that is partly what Americana music is about, too a life lived shows up in the voice. Its not a process, an overly processed, numbing, assaulting experience. The music, its the life and the connectiveness and the experience. So, yeah, they change over time, and they become about different things.
Four years ago she introduced her album, The List, based on a list of the 100 greatest country and American songs that her dad gave her. She says it originated this way: I was a young girl. I was 18 years old. I had just graduated high school, and I went on the road with him. And I was not interested in country music. I liked the Beatles and Elton John. I liked Creedence (Clearwater Revival) and The Band and Blind Faith. I grew up in Southern California in the 60s and 70s, and thats the music I loved.
Of course, I heard my dads music and what he played around the house and what my mother played. And Ray Charles Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music kind of went in on a cellular level at that time.
But, on that tour, we were talking about songs, and he mentioned a song. I said, I dont know that one, and then he mentioned another. I said, I dont know that one. And he got very alarmed. And he felt that I had half of my musical education. So he made this list for me, and he said, This is your education.