Thursday, May 13, 2010

Graceful, Gorgeous Storytelling on Stage

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of being in the audience at Seattle's Moore Theatre as NPR's Michele Norris interviewed Rosanne Cash on-stage. I was reminded of this today when I saw a starred review for Cash's forthcoming memoir, Composed (Viking, Aug 10), in Kirkus Reviews, which described the book as "beautifully written meditations on love, death, family and redemption." After hearing Cash in conversation with Michele Norris, during which Cash read a bit from her memoir, I'm eager to experience the full work this summer and I have no doubt that "a generosity of spirit informs her portraits" in the book.

The evening's event, which was taped as a Mother's Day special that aired this past Sunday on NPR, was a touching exploration of words spoken, written, and sung. I've been a fan of Rosanne Cash's since being introduced to her through Black Cadillac. Hearing her on-stage was another experience altogether; her voice was as clear and lovely and passionate as it is on her albums, but also so pure, stripped of any production, that it was like listening to glass turning into water. The two most moving moments for me were when Michele Norris asked Cash about lullabies and she broke into song from her seat, and again when she spoke about the way she wrote songs and prose. Here was a woman whose life's work defines lyricism.

Here, too, was someone clearly committed to her family, and who spoke about the choices she made with her own children and how those choices were both similar and different from decisions made by her parents and stepmother (Cash is the daughter of Johnny Cash and Vivian Liberto, and the step-daughter of June Carter Cash). For the first time onstage, Cash sang with her daughter, Chelsea Crowell, who has taken up the musical mantle of an astonishingly gifted American songmaking family. Another moment in the evening featured a clip of Cash speaking and then singing with her father, from a documentary about Johnny Cash's life that was taped shortly before he passed away (and which can be seen on NPR's site).

I'm writing about this event today because of the review and because I'm listening to Cash's new CD The List , and also because her work brings to mind the question of different forums for storytelling. Both Rosanne Cash and Johnny Cash are exemplars of songwriting that speaks to story in similar ways to prose and poetry. Other songwriters in the same vein for me are Bruce Springsteen, Josh Ritter, Emmylou Harris, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan (see also Dylan's memoirs), Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch and far too many more to name. For me, as for many others, the musicians who are storytellers are most often country, folk, and blues singers--or pop/rock artists leading from those roots. And their stories are often mythic in their specificity: tales of heartbreak and history through individual lives. Which is in line with what superb short story writers do, including some of my favorites: John McGahern, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Frederick Busch, Jhumpa Lahiri, and most especially Andre Dubus.

Who are your favorite storytelling singers? Which songs tell stories that lift you up, draw you in, tell you about people and places you either don't know, or perhaps know too well?

1 comment:

  1. This is going to be an incredibly obvious comment, but, duh, The Mountain Goats. Just click on any of the 525 songs in John Darnielle's catalog: