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John Leventhal, In The Spotlight At Last, Talks ‘Rumble Strip’

John Leventhal photographed at NY Noise Studio in Manhattan
Wes Bender
John Leventhal photographed at NY Noise Studio in Manhattan

I first saw John Leventhal’s name on the CD notes for Shawn Colvin’s debut album Steady On back around 1990. Did I know diddly then about what a producer did? No. But I sure loved that album - its songs and its sounds - and I think a seed was planted. I began seeing Leventhal’s name popping up here and there - on Jim Lauderdale’s amazing first record Planet Of Love, a turning point in my tastes in 1991 - and on Kim Richey’s Bittersweet and Kelly Willis’s self-titled debut.

Years later, I realized that this Leventhal character - merely a behind-the-scenes mystery name to me before that - was in fact Rosanne Cash’s husband and an accomplished guitarist and songwriter as well. He was producer on Cash’s string of remarkable albums in the 2000s, including The List (especially impactful on me) and the Grammy-winning The River And The Thread (2014). And then he made more honest, gorgeous albums for others - This Is Where I Live by soul artist William Bell in 2016 and Sarah Jarosz’s World On The Ground in 2020 - both major award winners. Amid it all, Leventhal was named Americana Instrumentalist of the Year in 2015.

And yet for all of this, John Leventhal made it to age 70 having never released music of his own. That changed in late January with the release of Rumble Strip, a collection of three songs and thirteen instrumentals, made by John working alone and playing all the instruments, not counting the duo vocals of Rosanne Cash on a couple of timeless cuts. It’s a relaxing, ambient kind of album that puts Leventhal’s bell-toned guitars right up front leaning more on restrained melodic playing than on fancy guitar improvisation. I told John that while I was not let down in any way because I love this kind of thing, I was surprised by the instrumental focus given his history working with so many singers.

“The obvious template would be for me to potentially have co-written with a bunch of people that I know, produced or worked with, and, you know, maybe get them to sing on it. And that certainly would have made sense marketing wise,” Leventhal says in Episode 276 of The String. And yet he’d also been promising himself he’d make something personal and procrastinating on it for quite some time. “But the pandemic hit, and I really didn't have any excuse. So I just sort of gave myself over to it. And I got bored with the idea of co-writing. But what I did get into was just making music and not editing myself, not even thinking about anything other than creating music that was pleasing to me.”

Growing up in New York City, Leventhal says that music was “the only thing that really got to me,” from the Beatles to country and the stew on free form FM radio. Even as he developed his guitar skils and played in bands, he was ambivalent about pursuing music as a living, right through college, up to the point of almost going to law school. “Thank God I didn't,” he says. “I took a year off (to play in bands). And I laughingly say now at this point that year turned into 50 years. So I've had a 50 year take-off from college, avoiding a real job. You know, things just really unfolded in a great way.”

Part of that early journey was meeting Jim Lauderdale and Shawn Colvin at the dawn of their careers as New York played host to a respectable country music scene. Buddy and Julie Miller were in the community as well. But with Jim and Shawn, co-writing led to his first experience as a producer, and that took off when Colvin’s debut won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Shortly thereafter, Rosanne Cash moved to New York to start a new chapter of her life and music career, and she tapped Leventhal to produce what became her pivotal album The Wheel (whose recent re-release was the subject of String # 269). By the time that album was wrapped, they were a couple, and the rest is history.

We spoke by Zoom from Leventhal’s home studio in the bottom floor of the townhome he shares with Cash in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, the same space where he made the albums by Jarosz and Bell and many more. He built it out after losing the lease on the place he’d maintained up until 2015. And he loves it. “I always had in my mind that I needed to go somewhere to work, which was totally wrong. I wasted a lot of time. I should have built this studio 25 years ago! I love it. It’s my happy space.”

Rumble Strip, like Cash’s recent 30th anniversary remastered edition of The Wheel, were the first two releases on RumbleStrip Records, the indie label launched by Leventhal and Cash to be a home for select projects of their own (Rosanne is still on Blue Note Records) and possibly, they say, releases by other artists.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>