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VOL. 129 | NO. 117 | Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Cash Reflects on ‘Long Way Home’

By Bill Dries

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As Graceland marks the anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley in August, another important artist from Sun Records will be remembered in Dyess, Ark.


The opening of Johnny Cash’s childhood home in Dyess as a museum is Aug. 16.

It is one of the few Cash memorial projects in which the singer’s daughter, Rosanne, has been involved.

Arkansas State University bought the New Deal colony, which is about an hour from Memphis.

Only about 20 of the 500 cottages on the property remain, including the Cash house.

“There are a lot of Johnny Cash projects that come across my desk,” Cash told an audience Friday, June 13, at Cooper Walker Place, in Cooper-Young. “And I say no to virtually all of them because I feel that that’s other people’s ideas of my dad. It’s mythmaking. It’s not the dad I knew.”

Rosanne Cash was born in Memphis, and although most of her life has been lived in California and New York City, her most recent album, “The River and The Thread,” is an exploration of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta of her childhood in the mid-1950s.

That was the reason she came to Memphis and agreed to talk about it at several seminars and to perform Saturday at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park. She and her band performed the entire album.

The seminars were co-presented by the Mike Curb Institute for Music at Rhodes College, Christian Brothers University and Visible Music College.

Her father performed early in his career at what was then the Overton Park Shell, and Friday’s discussions were at what used to be Galloway United Methodist Church – the first place Cash performed with the Tennessee Two.

“I have found in my life that the things I pushed away the hardest when I was young are the things that I embraced the tightest in middle age. That includes tradition,” she said in the old church sanctuary with stained glass windows, the remnants of a pipe organ and green walls with a few water stains. “I thought in the beginning, ‘I am original and unique, and I don’t need them. I’m going to create something entirely new. I want to get as far away from that as I can.’ Well, of course, none of us are original and unique. We all are products of parentage and DNA and geography.”

The songs that resulted, written and performed with her husband, John Leventhal, are personal. But they also reflect the abundant creativity present in Memphis of the mid-1950s that changed music and popular culture – and still provide today what she termed a “mythic resonance.”

“Born in that particular time … that point in musical history and in Memphis history – you can’t even comprehend what was going on then,” she said. “WDIA playing what they called ‘race music,’ with B.B. King as a disc jockey – let’s start with that. At the same time, the Tommy Dorsey orchestra is playing at a famous hotel across town while Elvis and Roy Orbison and my Dad and Jerry Lee (Lewis) and Conway Twitty and Carl Perkins were recording at Sun Records. And then Stax. This stew of musical genius and revolution – and I was born right in it. I mean, do I get to claim any of that?”

Part of the creative process was a visit to Memphis that included finding her first home on Tutwiler and other childhood landmarks that she said evoked more of the city’s enduring personality than nostalgia. Just before the album was released late last year, she also wrote about her time in Memphis and other places of her childhood for Oxford American magazine’s music issue. The article borrowed the name of one of the songs, “Long Way Home.”

“These are songs I’ve been trying to write my whole life,” she said.

She also said her experiences growing up as the daughter of a performer and musical icon remain with her in the choices she made for her own career.

“I was stubborn, and I wanted to do it on my own,” Cash said. “I didn’t want to be a star. … I had seen behind the curtain. … I got a lot of noise about my dad. But that’s true of anybody whose parent is famous, especially if they do the same thing. I became a writer before I became a performer.”

Her father didn’t necessarily offer lots of advice on the business. She recalled him calling her once to ask what her royalty rate was and discovering his own rate was lower.

“He was really propelled by rhythm,” Cash said, recalling her father’s walk. “He said, ‘Take care of your babies first.’ He learned that the hard way.”

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