The River & The Thread features 11 new songs inspired by her travels in the deep south
Rosanne Cash went back to her southern roots to find the inspiration for her superb new record The River & The Thread. Submitted photo
It has been more than four years now since Rosanne Cash released The List, the Grammy-nominated collection of songs drawn from a list of 100 essential American songs given to her by her late father, Johnny Cash.
That’s a long time between records.
But some things in life are worth waiting for.
The River & The Thread is one of them.
Beautifully crafted and just as beautifully produced, Cash’s latest project features 11 new songs inspired by her travels in the deep south with husband and longtime collaborator John Leventhal, who also produced the record, wrote the arrangements and played guitar on it.
You can thank Arkansas State University for helping make this record happen.
University officials approached Cash and expressed their interest in buying her father’s boyhood home in Dyess, Ark.
While helping with the purchase and renovation of the Dyess house, Cash and Leventhal took several extended trips through the Southern states.
They visited places like Dockery Farms, the plantation where Howlin’ Wolf and Charley Patton worked, William Faulkner’s home, Robert Johnson’s grave and Memphis, where they watched their son strum a guitar in the Sun Records studio where Rosanne’s father cut his first record.
They also visited the Tallahatchie Bridge, site of Bobbie Gentry’s classic Ode to Billie Joe, and the abandoned country grocery store where 14-year-old Emmett Till reportedly flirted with a white woman, leading to his tragic murder in 1955, an event that helped ignite the Civil Rights movement.
She found inspiration everywhere.
“I went back to where I was born, and these songs started arriving in me,” Cash has said of the record.
“All these things happened that made me feel a deeper connection to the South than I ever had. We started finding these great stories and the melodies that went with those experiences.”
And they did, indeed, find some great stories.
Some of the stories were drawn from the history of the Cash family and the characters who populated it.
Sunken Lands, for example, tells of the difficult life her grandmother, Carrie, lived.
The title was inspired by the area in which Carrie raised Johnny and the rest of her children.
Rosanne’s own life provided the inspiration for The Long Way Home.
One of the record’s most moving songs, When the Master Calls the Roll, began life much earlier as a co-write by Leventhal and Cash’s first husband, Rodney Crowell, for Emmylou Harris but was revisited or perhaps reimagined for this record.
Revisiting the song was inspired by Cash’s chance discovery of a photograph of one of her ancestors on a Civil War database while helping her son do research for a school project.
She loved the melody Leventhal had written for the song and asked Crowell about rewriting the lyrics and crafting a Civil War ballad around her ancestor.
Another song I found truly touching was Etta’s Song.
The song is named for Etta Grant, wife of Marshall Grant, Johnny’s bass player in the Tennessee Two.
Marshall Grant came out to rehearsals for the first in a series of benefit concerts staged to raise money for the purchase and restoration of Johnny’s childhood home but had a brain aneurysm that night and died three days later.
Grant had been like a second father to Rosanne after her father died so after Marshall died she spent some time with Etta.
The time they spent together inspired her to write Etta’s Tune, the first song completed for the new record.
The music behind these wonderful stories embraces several styles of music deeply rooted in southern culture, country, gospel, Delta blues, rock, Appalachian folk music, southern soul and rock.
Everything belongs here.
Cash sounds absolutely marvelous. Her performance is almost mesmerizing. It’s brilliant work.
Cash and Leventhal were joined in the studio for the making of this record by a stellar group of artists that included John Prine, Tony Joe White, Kris Kristofferson, Allison Moorer, Derek Trucks, Levon Helm’s daughter, Amy, John Paul White of The Civil Wars and The Punch Brothers’ Gabe Witcher.
The River & The Thread has been described as a kaleidoscopic examination of the geographic, emotional and historic landscape of the American South.
I can think of no more apt description than that so I won’t try to come up with one.
Cash said if she never makes another album she will be content because she has made this one.
I can see why she would say that, but I do hope there are several more records yet to come before she hangs up her spurs.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.
Doug Gallant, a reporter with The Guardian, writes this music review column for The Guardian every Saturday. He welcomes comments from readers, as well as CDs to review. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 629-6000, ext. 6057.