“To Play Music in That Field, I Mean, That’s a Kind of Perfection, Isn’t It?”

Rosanne Cash on returning to her father’s boyhood home to perform the music it inspired

WHEN ROSEANNE CASH TAKES the stage at the inaugural Johnny Cash Heritage Festival in Dyess this month, it’ll be in the very field where her father picked cotton as a child, adjacent to The Man in Black’s boyhood home. But when Rosanne started writing her song “The Sunken Lands,” named for the area of the Arkansas Delta surrounding Dyess, it wasn’t so much her father’s experience she was inspired by. It was her grandmother’s.

We spoke to Rosanne ahead of her performance to find out how the song came to be, and what it will feel like to perform the tune on the land that inspired it.

“THE HERO of the song is my grandmother, Carrie Cash, who raised seven children and picked cotton. She and my grandfather moved to the Sunken Lands in 1935—my dad was 3 years old—and were one of 500 families who had applied to receive a cottage and 40 acres and a mule and seed for planting, as part of the Works Progress Administration.

You visit your parents’ childhood home, and it’s a bit like time travel, you know? And I particularly started wondering about my grandmother and thinking about her life and how hard her life was, and trying to find what it is in me that’s as tenacious as she was. So there were a lot of layers of resonance for me—family, ancestry, the very geography, the music that came out of that part of the country, and also the history of the New Deal and the Works Progress Administration.

The record The River & The Thread is full of geography and haunted places and places that connect to my own ancestry. In the past 3 1/2 years since the album’s been out, I’ve played the song “Money Road” in Mississippi at Dockery Farms just off Money Road, and I’ve played “When the Master Calls the Roll” in Virginia, and that song is set in the Civil War in Virginia. But I have not played “The Sunken Lands” in Dyess, and I think that is kind of the ultimate.

It’s coming full circle. It’s the first song we wrote for the album. It’s one of the things that inspired the album, going there. So to finally bring it back for the first time—to play music in that field and play that song, I mean, that’s a kind of perfection, isn’t it?”

The 2017 Johnny Cash Heritage Festival will be held Oct. 19-21 in Dyess, featuring performances from Rosanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Joanne & Tommy Cash and Buddy Jewel. For more information, visit johnnycashheritagefestival.com.

“The Sunken Lands”

Lyrics by Rosanne Cash | Music by John Leventhal

Five cans of paint and

the empty fields

And the dust reveals


The children cry; the

work never ends

There’s not a single friend


Who will hold her hand

In the sunken lands?


The mud and tears

melt the cotton bolls

It’s a heavy toll

Oooh oh


His words are cruel

and they sting like fire

Like the devil’s choir

Oooh oh


But who will hold her hand

In the sunken lands?


The river rises and

she sails away

She could never stay

Oooh oh


Now her work is done

in the sunken lands

There’s five empty cans