Eavesdropping

Rosanne Cash Learns About Partying with William Faulkner

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Frazer Harrison/Getty Entertainment
Frazer Harrison/Getty Entertainment

Rosanne Cash is the daughter of a legendary musician father  in Johnny Cash – but for over thirty years she has been a musical force all her own. “The River & The Thread”, released this week, marks her 13th full-length solo album. In addition to her music, Ms. Cash has found time to author a memoir, a book for children, and numerous essays, and campaign as an activist for non-violence.

Born in Memphis, Ms Cash returned to her roots for this new record, which she describes as being inspired by the culture and history of the American South. With her husband, musician John Leventhal, in tow, she started her journey to the heart of Southern culture by having lunch one degree away from William Faulkner.

In addition to this story that aired on the broadcast, Ms. Cash told us a second story about a very different encounter with another historic Southerner – President Bill Clinton. 

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Hi, my name is Rosanne Cash. My new album is called “The River and the Thread.” It was inspired by the south and by a lot of trips and characters and places in the south.

My husband is a bit of a William Faulkner buff. He wrote his college thesis on Faulkner and we wanted to start at Faulkner’s house. It was mind blowing, this avenue of gorgeous oak trees leading up to it. After seeing Faulkner’s house, we drove to Dockery Farm which was once the largest cotton plantation in Mississippi. It’s now not a functioning cotton plantation, but all of the great blues musicians worked at Dockery Farm picking cotton. Howlin’ Wolf, Charlie Patton, Pop Staples. There was a juke join there and they sat on the porch of the juke joint and played music at night and picked cotton by day.

We have a friend whose grandfather was Will Dockery who started the plantation. He brought out this 1930s National guitar for my husband to play, just so he could feel like he was part of that juke joint history. So he says to us, “Look, there’s this old man I know, Lee McCarty. He lives in Marigold, Mississippi. It’s not that far from here and he would love to have lunch with us. Should we go?” We thought, “Well, yeah. What the hell? Let’s meet some more Mississippi natives, do the whole thing.”

Lee McCarty is a ceramicist and he’s actually, we found out, kind of famous around the world. There was a line going out the door to get into his ceramic shop. We go to lunch at the restaurant he has built for himself because he had no place good to have lunch. He basically owns the town.

Lee is in his 90s. As you can imagine, my husband and I were just wanting to soak up anything he wanted to tell us because he remembered Mississippi back to when Pop Staples sat on the porch of the juke joint at Dockery Farm right up the road. I said at one point in listening to the story he was telling, I said just casually, “Lee, did you know William Faulkner?”

He said, “Oh. Bill and Estelle were lovely people. My wife and I, they were our dear friends.” They partied together at Faulkner’s house. He said, “In fact, Bill Faulkner has a clay pit in back of his house and he told me, he said if you’re going to start making pottery just take what you want. I’ve got so much clay back here.” Lee said that’s how he began as a ceramicist – with clay from William Faulkner’s pit. That was worth the whole day.

Just to hear that story was enough but then I had to push it further and I said, “Lee, did you know Eudora Welty?” He said, “Eudora was a lovely woman.” It came to life to me. Howlin’ Wolf and Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson were right up the road from William Faulkner and Lee McCarty who is sitting here across the table from me, it’s hard to believe what came out of that one little spot in the delta.