Rosanne Cash doesn’t release music all that often, so when she does, there’s almost certainly a good reason. And with The River & the Thread, her first album in more than three years, Cash found that reason during a series of trips she took through the American South — to the city of her birth (Memphis) and beyond. The songs, sounds and stories that resulted are among the strongest of her career.
Set for a January 14th release through her new label Blue Note Records, The River & the Thread features 11 songs written by the GRAMMY winner and her husband John Leventhal (who also produced and arranged the album). It’s Cash’s first album since 2009’s The List (a collection of covers from a list of essential songs her father, Johnny Cash, had given her), and her first of original material since 2006’s Black Cadillac.
The ‘thread’ running through the album is the South, and more specifically, Cash’s relationship with it. She recently reconnected with the region during a series of trips she and Leventhal took there over the past few years, which started when she was asked to participate in events surrounding the restoration of her father’s boyhood home in Dyess, Arkansas. From there, events and ideas blossomed.
Cash has lived in New York City the past couple decades, but she was born in Memphis (to Johnny Cash and his first wife Vivian), has lived in Nashville (as well as California, where her parents moved the family after Johnny’s career took off), and she’s remained tied to the region in a multitude of ways throughout her life.
This relationship with the South has been nurtured over the years through her own music, too, which has veered between country (she was one of Nashville’s biggest hitmakers during the 1980s, racking up an impressive string of No. 1 songs), folk, pop and rock, but currently lives (and thrives) in a space between formats and categories. If you have to give it a label, the one that best fits is “Americana” — which itself is a name for music that is rooted in numerous traditions but defies easy categorization.
From opener “A Feather’s Not a Bird” (a song that takes inspiration from her friend Natalie Chanin, who runs a clothing company) to the epic finale “Money Road” (referencing a lonely Mississippi road with a lot of history attached to it), The River & the Thread is rooted in Cash and Leventhal’s real-life experiences. The songs are often about real people (the lovely “Etta’s Tune,” for instance, is named for Etta Grant, wife of Marshall Grant, Johnny Cash’s original bass player and lifelong family friend) and real places (the Tallahatchie Bridge from Bobbie Gentry‘s “Ode to Billy Joe” is noted in the first line of “Money Road”).
“John [Leventhal] pushed me outside of my own voice to write third person songs and put real characters in these songs,” Cash told Radio.com. “It was challenging in some ways, but it was really good for us.”
Ultimately, the album takes those experiences and turns them into something far beyond mere documentation. The River & the Thread is Cash’s story, her travels through the South, but also her life’s story — and that of the people around her and with whom she’s closest.
Radio.com: It’s been three years since your last album. Where did the ideas for this project begin?
Rosanne Cash: A couple years after The List, we started thinking, ‘Oh, we might want to make a record.’ But neither one of us wanted to make either The List Part 2 or just a random collection of, ‘hey, these are 12 new songs I wrote.’ We wanted it to have some structure to it, and some sense of time and place.
And how then did the South enter into the picture?
It was a perfect storm. I started going down to Arkansas and Memphis because Arkansas State University had bought my dad’s boyhood home. They asked me to be involved, so we did these fundraising concerts in Joseboro, Arkansas. And the first trip I made for that, Marshall Grant died on that trip. He was like a surrogate dad to me, after my dad died. So John and I wrote “Etta’s Tune” shortly after he died [Etta was Marshall’s wife]. And it was all true [the details in the songs’s lyrics]. They did keep a house on Nokomis Avenue in Memphis full of their memories. And he did play the bass guitar one last time the day he had an aneurysm [he died on August 7, 2011].
That happened at the same time that I met a very dear friend of mine in Florence, Alabama, Natalie Chanin. And I was going down there, and she taught me how to sew in her workshop. So all of this started happening at once, and it all started forming. After we wrote “Etta’s Tune,” the ideas started forming.
Many of the songs are based on real-life people and events. But do your own personal experiences run throughout the songs as well?
Oh sure, I am part of the thread that runs through these places and characters, too. ‘Modern Blue,’ totally me and John [Leventhal], that’s our story. Ending up in Memphis [was] just a touchstone for the home that you carry inside yourself — kind of an ancestral home. But, yeah! “The Long Way Home,” “Tell Heaven,” “World of Strange Design”…and “Money Road,” that’s an actual trip John and I took through the Delta, down Money Road.
It’s surprising how many historic events and cultural touchstones the real Money Road is connected to.
Oh my god, it’s amazing! Robert Johnson’s grave, the candy store where Emmett Till [allegedly flirted with a shopkeeper before being murdered], and the Tallahatchie Bridge, not quite within walking distance but practically.
How quickly did you write “Money Road” after that trip?
Pretty quickly. I think I got a couple of lines while I was traveling. Just, “I was dreaming of the Tallahatchie Bridge/A thousand miles from where we live.” Because that day, when we got to the Tallahatchie Bridge, in our minds it was this mythic, huge bridge — but it’s just a little bridge, very unassuming. We sat on the bridge for half an hour and one car went by. John took my picture with his phone, standing on the bridge.
And that photo became the album cover?
We have lots of friends who are designers, they were all, ‘Oh man, don’t put an iPhone photo on the cover! You can’t do it!’ So we just treated it like crazy with colors.
The first song you wrote, though, for this project was “Etta’s Tune”?
Yes. It’s really in Marshall’s voice speaking to Etta. That line about, “I traveled for a million miles while you were standing still.” He was on the road for so many years with my dad. You just don’t hear about a 65-year marriage surviving the life of a touring musician. And it did.
She told me, after Marshall had had the aneurysm, “We’d wake up every morning of our lives and say, ‘What’s the temperature darling?'” And I thought, what a practical, solid way to start the day. On all levels, metaphorical and practically. And John said, “oh my god, that’s a great first line for a song.”
Read the full Rosanne Cash interview on Radio.com