Carpenter, Cash, Crowell and Hiatt Harmonize at the Ryman

One of country music’s most famous ex-couples, Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell , swapped songs at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on Wednesday (Nov. 19) with fellow singer-songwriters John Hiatt and Mary Chapin Carpenter settled comfortably between them. The two-hour show revived some of the best roots-oriented music from the 1980s and early 1990s as it raised money for Cumberland Heights, an alcoholism and drug treatment center in Nashville.

With the four artists seated in a row, Crowell was inspired to perform “Song for the Life,” which starts with the lyric “Well I don’t drink as much as I used to.” (Alan Jackson covered the song in 1994.) Cash later remarked that she was so happy to hear Crowell start with that song, adding, “I always remembered that I wish I could write a song like that.” Cash and Crowell wed in 1979, collaborated on each other’s albums throughout their marriage and divorced in 1992.

Copping to being nervous in such esteemed company, Carpenter recalled sitting in on a performance featuring Cash, Crowell and Guy Clark at the Birchmere near Washington, D.C., long before her own career had taken off. “They would let me sit at the soundboard because I couldn’t afford a seat,” she said. “I’m over the moon, verklempt and so happy to be here.” She then sang “The Hard Way,” followed by Hiatt’s “Drive South.” (Both songs were hits in 1993, the latter sung by Suzy Bogguss .)

Still in superb voice, Cash finished up the first round with “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,” which she said was written in bitterness after not winning a Grammy in 1984. In a nice twist of fate, she grinned as she told the audience that the song won a Grammy in 1985.

Carpenter captivated the audience with two new compositions, “Grand Central Station” and “Goodnight America.” The first song tells the story of a relief worker at ground zero who, after weeks of working there, felt a life force in the rubble. He was finally compelled to visit Grand Central Station one night after working on the pile, so that the souls could catch a train home. With its vivid imagery and unassumingly heroic character, the song earned the evening’s most sustained applause. “Goodnight America” recounts the bewilderment of being a stranger in an unfamiliar city, while ultimately realizing that we’re all from somewhere else. Both songs capture that unlikely combination of community and loneliness that has become a signature in Carpenter’s ballads.

After that, Hiatt rocked the Ryman with “Thing Called Love,” a Bonnie Raitt smash from 1989. After the arousing performance, Cash jokingly asked Hiatt, “When did you get so sexy?” and Carpenter quipped, “You’re like the Barry White of singer-songwriters!”

Cash and Crowell’s daughter, Chelsea, had earlier requested Cash to sing “Blue Moon With Heartache,” and Cash obliged. Crowell introduced a new tune, “I Don’t Understand at All,” by saying, “Chelsea has informed me that she doesn’t like this song. For all the times she has not done what I’ve wanted her to do, I’m gonna get her back.”

Carpenter delighted the crowd with the old favorite, “This Shirt,” and Cash assisted Hiatt on “The Way We Make a Broken Heart,” which he wrote. Featured on the classic album King’s Record Shop, Cash took it to No. 1 in 1987. After that, Cash sang a new song, presumably titled “September When It Comes.” She also announced that she’ll release a new album in April 2003.

For their final round, the artists pulled out their most eloquent work. A peacemaking ode to his parents, Crowell’s “I Know Love Is All I Need” brought tears to many in the audience, as well as Cash. Carpenter’s “Late for Your Life” should have been an encouraging hit from her last album, Time* Sex* Love*. Finally, Hiatt’s rollicking “Have a Little Faith in Me” brought down the house, and Cash’s classic “Seven Year Ache” still sounds amazing 22 years since its release.

Cash declared, “I’ve been living in New York City for 12 years, and it feels so great to come back here. I feel so welcome.” The crowd agreed, giving the performers a standing ovation, both before and after their encore, Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.”

Set List:

Crowell: “Song for the Life”
Carpenter: “The Hard Way”
Hiatt: “Drive South”
Cash: “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me”
Crowell: “You Don’t Know How Much I Hate You”
Carpenter: “Grand Central Station”
Hiatt: “Fly Away”
Cash: “The Wheel”
Crowell: “Riding Out the Storm”
Carpenter: “Goodnight America”
Hiatt: “Thing Called Love”
Cash: “Blue Moon With Heartache”
Crowell: “I Don’t Understand at All”
Carpenter: “This Shirt”
Hiatt/Cash: “The Way We Make a Broken Heart”
Cash: “September When It Comes”
Crowell: “I Know Love Is All I Need”
Carpenter: “Late for Your Life”
Hiatt: “Have a Little Faith in Me”
Cash: “Seven Year Ache”
All (Encore): “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”