Paul Liberatore’s Lib at Large: Joan Osborne on grown-up love, John Carter Cash on his parents’ musical legacy

Joan Osborne’s new album, “Love and Hate,” is her first real concept record, a song-cycle that expresses a grown-up’s perspective on the many phases of mature love and enduring romance.
Joan Osborne’s new album, “Love and Hate,” is her first real concept record, a song-cycle that expresses a grown-up’s perspective on the many phases of mature love and enduring romance.

You know you’re having a good day when Joan Osborne sings a couple of songs for you on her cell phone.

The soulful singer-songwriter treated me to this unexpected mini-concert as I was interviewing her while she was in a cab on her way from her home in Brooklyn to catch a plane to Nashville to work on the next Trigger Hippy album. Once she arrived in Music City, she told me, the first order of business would be to meet with musicians hoping to replace Jackie Greene, who left the band so he could concentrate on his new solo album, his first in five years.

Our conversation soon switched to her latest album, “Love and Hate.” After nine albums of mainstream pop, blues, throwback soul, rock and modern country, “Love and Hate” is her first real concept record, a song-cycle that expresses a grown-up’s perspective on the many phases of mature love and enduring romance.

“It’s about romantic love, but the particular territory of romantic love that people my age tend to find themselves in,” she explained.

Osborne, who appears at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley for two shows Friday night, is 53, has an 11-year-old daughter and has been in a relationship with a man for nearly a decade.

“There’s not a lot of falling in love for the first time and there’s not a lot of kicking somebody to the curb because they made you mad on this album,” she said. “It’s really about the day-to-day of staying in long-term relationships and how that’s very complicated terrain. You have to be able to navigate the conflicts and difficulties that come up. You can’t just walk away. I think it’s a very interesting point to look at. What does romantic love mean in that context?”

After she became famous in 1995 for the Jesus-on-the-bus hit “One of Us,” the seven-time Grammy nominee has earned a reputation as one of the great voices of her generation. She wrote or co-wrote all the songs on “Love and Hate,” the most personal of her two-decades-plus career and the first to showcase her talent as a songwriter as well as a singer. I asked her to pick a song on the record and walk me through the creative process that went into it. She chose a tune called “Work on Me.”

“It’s a straight up romantic love song,” she said. “It was inspired by the Gershwin song, ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me.’”

With that, she sang a few bars, beginning with the familiar lines: “The way you wear your hat/The way you sip your tea/The memory of all that/No, no, they can’t take that away from me.”

At my request, she followed that with a couple of verses of “Work on Me,” a tune with a Latin feel that, she explained, was influenced by the charming little moments in a long-term love affair that make the Gershwin song so memorable.

“Love in this instance is not like the waves came crashing down and the sky opened up,” she said. “It’s the tiny little things you notice or remember about someone that stay inside you. To me, that’s a truthful way to talk about how we actually experience love.”

At Sweetwater she’ll be accompanied by keyboardist Keith Cotton on selections from “Love and Hate” as well as songs from other phases of her career, which includes an unlikely membership in the Grateful Dead’s extended family. She brought her vocal firepower to the post-Jerry Garcia band the Dead for its 2003 summer tour. From there, she went on to sing with Phil Lesh and Friends in 2005 and 2006 and is featured prominently on the band’s album “Live at the Warfield.”

Osborne comes to Sweetwater fresh from a two-week engagement devoted to the songs of Bob Dylan at Manhattan’s famed Cafe Carlyle.

“As both a songwriter and interpreter, she looks life squarely in the face,” Stephen Holden wrote in his New York Times review, noting:

“She treats Mr. Dylan as a fellow troubadour and roustabout, inventing the rules while traveling along an endless road.”

I caught John Carter Cash, the only child of country greats Johnny Cash and June Carter, on his cellphone as he was driving with his fiance, singer Ana Cristina, to their Manhattan hotel, where they were staying before performing at the Cutting Room, a nightclub on East 32nd Street.

The caretaker of the legacies of two legendary country music families, Carter Cash and his bride-to-be will be bringing their show, “House of Cash,” to Sweetwater in Mill Valley on May 21. He’ll be performing many of his dad’s hits as well as music from his other country music bloodline, the Carter family. His maternal grandmother, Maybelle Carter, was part of a family act that was one of the first commercial country music groups in the 1920s and ’30s.

“This show is about the Cash and Carter families’ musical heritage,” he explained. “It’s half music and half anecdotal stories. It covers family history from 1927 to my parents’ deaths in 2003. It’s also an insight into the life I lived working with my father on the road.”

Now 46, Carter Cash was on stage with his father from the time he could stand. A photo of him and his dad is on the sleeve of the 1975 album “Look at Them Beans,” and his parents recorded a duet about him on the song, “I Got a Boy (And His Name is John”) a takeoff on the Cash hit “A Boy Named Sue.” In 2003, at the end of one of the most enduring marriages in country music, June died in May and Johnny followed her in September.

In addition to being a singer, songwriter and performer, Carter Cash is a record producer, beginning his career producing his mother’s album, “Press On,” which won a Grammy in 1999. He worked as an associate of multiple-Grammy-winning producer Rick Rubin on his dad’s final series of “American” records, the last being “American VI: Ain’t No Grave,” recorded four months before Cash’s death.

“My father never stopped recording,” Carter Cash said. “In the last three or four years of his life, he would be in the hospital and immediately wanted to start recording as soon as he got home. He recorded 90 percent of ‘American V’ and ‘American VI’ after my mother passed away. His eyesight was failing. He had diabetes. But recording some of the very stark, mournful songs that came out posthumously is what kept him going. Music was the only thing he had. I cherished that.”

Contact Paul Liberatore at liberatore@marinij.com or 415-382-7283, follow him @LibLarge on Twitter, read his blog at http://blogs.marinij.com/marinmusicman

If You Go

What: Joan Osborne

When: 9:30 p.m. April 15; 7 p.m. is sold out

Where: Sweetwater Music Hall, 19 Corte Madera Ave., Mill Valley

Admission: $60 to $65

Information: sweetwatermusichall.com

What: “House of Cash: The Musical Heritage of the Carter and Cash Families” featuring John Carter Cash and Ana Cristina

When: 8 p.m. April 21

Where: Sweetwater Music Hall

Admission: $22 to $25

Information: sweetwatermusichall.com