I remember a fall day when a group of prominent American authors boarded a plane from New York City for Southwest Virginia to speak to the student assembly at the University of Virginia at Wise. Then President Steven Kaplan, a true academic visionary (now at the magnificent University of New Haven), wanted our students in southwest Virginia to meet authors, maybe gain some inspiration and insight and share ideas. Rosanne Cash, Lorenzo Carcaterra (Sleepers and Three Dreamers), Jake Morrissey (Weekend at Blenheim), Tom Dyja (New York, New York, New York) and Ben Sherwood (The Life and Death of Charlie St. Cloud) were peering out the windows as we were prepping to land in Wise, when I looked over at Rosanne who was weeping at the sight of the glorious mountains and rolling hillsides of Southwest Virginia. She pointed to a one-room house made of mottled gray wood with a twist of smoke coming from the chimney. She didn’t have to say a word- as we understood- she was thinking of her father, stepmother and their extended family. She understood and appreciated life in the mountains, but swooping through the beauty brought up a lot of feelings. It did for all of us.
Music is a powerful art form. Most of us don’t allow a day to go by where we don’t play music, or have an album we listen to, or a radio show on as we commute. Music, they say, is an international language- we understand one another, regardless of language barriers, when we relax into the experience of a melody line. We hear instruments and they conjure memories.
Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal, a husband and wife team, the Steve and Eydie of the subversive set, compose and write songs across genres. They write what suits the moment, the lyric, the song itself. The River and The Thread is the album (song compilation- story songs) of a trip they made across the American south- Arkansas (Rosanne’s father’s family home) through Alabama where she sat in with the great weaver Natalie Chanin, and following the river, through the languid ports of call south of Alabama. The result was an American treasure- and there are only two people in the world who could have created that album- it was personal, but it was inclusive, it had a swath in its style- its overall tone was smooth as great Kentucky whiskey. One sip and you’re gone.
My husband and I met Rosanne and John at Denise Spatafora’s wedding- Denise knew we would love the Leventhals- and once we met them, we did.- Denise knew we would love the Leventhals- and once we met them, we did. They were hilarious- and comfortable with one another- clearly and obviously endeared to each other. When you’re married, you seek hope in other married couples. In the same way it sends a shudder and feeling of insecurity when those couples we love divorce, we embrace a couple that clearly is in it for the long haul. Rosanne and John are in it for the long haul. Show business marriages are their own category- but these two managed to grow over time- in amazing ways. John, the maestro, composer and musician, organizes the tour down to the tickets. He is a wonderful stepdad to their four daughters and a glorious father to Rosanne and John’s son, Jake. I’m not selling perfect here- because none of us are- but they have managed to create a secure, loving, nest for all their children and now grandchildren. Rosanne has managed to be a loving and dutiful mother as she and John traveled the world with their work. Home came first- and when you enter their home, you pass through two elegant rooms and into a light-filled kitchen with a big table for their big family.
When it came time to choose a composer for the Big Stone Gap movie- I went to the master. Rosanne said, John is the best- and so, I had the great privilege of directing a movie scored by John Leventhal. His guitar is an extension of his body and soul- it speaks for him- and his perfect stings and underscoring celebrated the Appalachian sound. We pulled in Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, If Birds Could Fly, Papa Joe Smiddy, and my brother Michael Trigiani, whose honey timber gave the soundtrack local flavor and color.
I could embrace Rosanne and John as artists had I never met them- and appreciated their soulful and excellent skills- but I love them as friends- which makes the music sound all the sweeter.