Rosanne Cash makes timeless music at SOPAC concert



Rosanne Cash with John Leventhal at the South Orange Performing Arts Center.

Since she emerged four decades ago, trying to forge her own identity as a songwriter and artist, Rosanne Cash has cleverly balanced an ability to blend her highly personal vignettes with mainstays of the American country and folk catalogs.

In doing so, she has created what might best be called The Rosanne Cash Songbook, a portfolio that features her many wry and somber explorations of life — family, love and uncertainty — but can also incorporate timeless gems penned by others, whose sensibilities match her own need to understand doubt and hope.

The accumulated weight of her dozen albums is, in effect, a celebration of life, but also a quest for meaning. And an exquisite 90-minute performance at the South Orange Performing Arts Center, Friday night, was the latest stop on this journey.

As she often has in recent years, Cash took the stage accompanied only by her husband, John Leventhal, a gifted guitarist and producer, who has worked closely with her to craft the sound and feel of her most recent albums.

This stripped-down approach is a smart move. With little instrumentation — sometimes, Cash also plays guitar — the songs immediately become more intimate and the power of the images she wants to convey are more readily grasped.

This was evident from the opening moments, when they launched into a handful of songs from her most recent album, The River and The Thread. Released three years ago, this collection was an effort to examine the American South and, as Johnny Cash’s daughter, her own connection to the region, personally and musically.

And like the South, Cash has increasingly embraced the musical potpourri that can be found across the region. Those first few numbers ranged from the sinewy swamp rhythms of “A Feather’s Not a Bird” to the mournful shuffle of “Sunken Lands,” a poignant ode to a poor woman of the past who worked the fields.

There was also a gem called “The Long Way Home,” with lyrics that reflect the burden of taking stock of your life after years of urges and meanderings: “You thought you left it all behind, you thought you’d up and gone, when all you did was figure out how to take the long way home.” Sobering, but hard to argue with.

But the evening was hardly a somber affair. A drama student in college, Cash has a strong but subtle stage presence. With her sharp wit and easygoing demeanor, she is adept at relating to an audience and putting them at ease with homey anecdotes, to the point where you feel you’re at a cozy gathering among friends.

Cash is also not shy about speaking her mind, as she made clear early on with a caustic jab at President Trump. “I asked Frederick Douglass to speak tonight, but unfortunately, he couldn’t make it,” she deadpanned, referring to Trump’s odd remark suggesting the 19th century abolitionist is still with us. The crowd roared.

From there, Cash pivoted back to the music and toward some of her older songs. The highlights included some of her best-loved hits from earlier in her career, notably “Seven Year Ache” and “Blue Moon with Heartache,” a pair of ballads that could make you feel lovelorn no matter how well you think your love life is going.

And as she so often has, Cash peppered the evening with a selection of covers that she has delivered so uniquely, time after time over the years, that you would never know they were written by others. It was as if she set up an antenna to identify them, reeled them in and then made them sound fresh and exciting.

She turned Hank Snow’s toe-tapping country classic “I’m Moving On” into a mesmerizing country blues shuffle. Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” was transformed from a teenage lament into a mournful tearjerker extraordinaire. Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil” was spookier than the original, and she restored the meaning of Don Gibson’s “Sea of Heartbreak” by stripping away its countrypolitan gloss. For good measure, she and Leventhal — a wonderful picker — tossed in a barn-burning version of “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” which was a hit for her father.

In this way, Cash has succeeded in becoming an American treasure. She builds upon a rich musical past — our musical past, actually — that she has wisely used as a platform to nurture and develop her own talent as a gifted songwriter and storyteller. For Cash, it may well be a long way home, but it was well worth being part of the trip on Friday.

Cash and Leventhal will perform at the Grunin Center for the Arts at Ocean County College in Toms River, April 6;

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