When Rosanne Cash was doing a second turn as a resident artistic director at San Francisco jazz organization SF JAZZ in 2018, she decided to ask Ry Cooder if he would be interested in collaborating on a show. So she called him up, and after deflecting a couple of her suggestions, he said, “Well, the only show to do is Johnny.”
That, says Cash in a recent phone conversation, is exactly what she’d been avoiding for 40 years. “It was hard enough as a young girl to start carving out my own space with my dad’s shadow as large as it was,” she says. “I had to work really hard at that. And even though it’s 40 years later and I’ve been around a long time and have some things under my belt that give me validity, it’s how I made my way in the world.”
Nonetheless, Cooder and Cash did combine to do four shows of classic Johnny Cash songs in San Francisco that May and two more in December, followed by shows in Nashville and Chicago. This fall, they’re doing three East Coast dates, including an Oct. 30 show in Boston at the Boch Center Wang Theatre.
So what made Rosanne Cash change her mind?
“I said, ‘Well, come on, it’s time, you’ve proven who you are,’ ” recounts Cooder in a separate phone call. “ ‘This is great stuff, you’re the standard bearer, people will love it.’ At least that’s what I said. I figured it was worth a try, for heaven’s sake!”
Cash’s husband, John Leventhal, echoed those sentiments, noting that if there was ever a time and ever a person to do it with, this was it. And so she came around to the conclusion that “it would be gracious to accept my legacy at this point.”
“Even more than that,” she adds, “the idea of working with Ry and with John to reimagine songs that are now part of the American Songbook and part of my own history, it was thrilling.”
In working out what to play, each brought songs to the table. Cooder’s suggestions leaned to early Johnny Cash, starting with “Hey, Porter,” which had a huge effect on him at an early age. “ ‘Hey, Porter’ is number one. That was my childhood. That was the tune that hooked me in the hardest. I loved Webb Pierce and the early honky-tonk guys, but then Johnny came and ‘Hey, Porter’ grabbed me. It’s fabulous, just fabulous.”
Cash, too, delved into her own history. She offered “Hardin Wouldn’t Run” (from her father’s album “Sings the Ballads of the True West”) because that song had been important to her from childhood. She notes other considerations that came into play: balancing types of songs, choosing songs she was suited to sing and songs the audience would want to hear (such as “I Walk the Line”), and representing her father’s sense of his own work (“so there is a gospel song”).
“We thought about all the angles,” she says.
Leventhal, who serves as the show’s musical director, put on his arranger’s hat and set to work to reconfigure the songs in ways that would suit the pair. Observes Cash, “It didn’t make sense just to copy the recordings — I mean, what’s the point? Those were perfect as they are — but to filter them through our sensibilities and who we are.” The result is that “some things are reimagined to the point of almost unrecognizability. And some things are performed with real intent to honor the very specific nature of that song.”
As Cooder inimitably puts it, “There’s the dress-up way, where you roll your Levi’s up and wear motorcycle boots and a T-shirt and show up at a gun convention and sing it. This is a little different, more personal and more interpretive, I guess you could say.”
It’s clear that doing these shows has meant a lot to both artists. For Cooder, “it’s like a life ambition. I’ve been a fan of Johnny Cash all my life. But I hadn’t foreseen, it never occurred to me, you’re gonna sing this stuff on stage for real.” An added bonus for the world-class guitar player is that he gets to play Luther Perkins’s guitar (borrowed from Rosanne’s brother, John Carter Cash) — the very instrument he heard coming out of his radio on “Hey, Porter” when he was 8 years old. (“Man, it sounds great. It’ll do one thing, and one thing only, and that’s play Luther. It’s like a little nail gun. It just fires away!”)
For her part, Cash describes the effect in spiritual terms. “Right before the first show, I was so nervous,” she recalls. “I refused to do ‘I Walk the Line’ on that show. I thought, it’s too much, I just can’t walk into my dad’s territory that far.” But after the first night, it felt liberating. “In a spiritual way it helped me come to terms with some things in my own self, and also, to step outside of my dad’s work and just see it as this breathtaking body of work. That in itself was a phenomenal experience. I owe Ry a great debt for thinking this idea up.”
Cash and Cooder On Cash: The Music of Johnny Cash
At the Boch Center Wang Theatre, Oct. 30 at 8 p.m. Tickets $49-$149,