Rosanne Cash has lived in New York City since the early 1990s, more than a third of her life. She grew up — from roughly the age of 3 to 18 — in Southern California. But it is the South — largely by virtue of her last name — that she will probably always be most associated with. Her father was born in Arkansas, her mother in San Antonio, and she was born in Memphis, the same year her dad laid down his first recordings with Sam Phillips.
In a sweet and thoughtful piece of memoir in The Oxford American magazine’s 2013 Southern music issue, Cash inventoried the multitude of musical strains — “the blues, Appalachian harmony, Southern gospel, and rock & roll” — that were tangled up in Memphis in the 1950s. “My dad became who he was out of that brilliant amalgamation,” she wrote.
It’s worth considering what musical traditions have made Rosanne Cash who she is. There is her familial legacy, of course — the same blues, country, gospel, and rock & roll that inspired her father. But as she told Ken Tucker in a recent New York Times Magazine feature, the music that imprinted on her during her formative Southern California years is just as essential. Can we consider her a confessional singer-songwriter in the L.A. tradition of Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne? And how has New York City, her home for more than two decades, influenced her more recent music?
By her own account, Rosanne Cash has had a complicated relationship with the South. In the early 80s, as her career was getting off the ground, she moved to the Nashville area where she scored a string of hits on the country charts. But it was an uncomfortable association. In her Oxford American piece, Cash tells a funny story about how she — a young, cosmopolitan woman with diverse tastes and an interest in cutting-edge fashion — was mocked for her overlarge shoulder pads on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. So, in the early 90s, Cash left Nashville, divorced, and refocused her art.
Cash’s new album, The River & The Thread, is being billed as a kind of reconciliation with the South. This is certainly an apt description — all the songs either take place in or take their inspiration from the Southern states — but in a way, the setting isn’t really what’s important. The River & The Thread is about the push-and-pull forces that nearly everyone feels about their origins. It is about the act of looking back and considering, once we have amassed enough personal history to be considered. And it is about not only the transient nature of experience, but also the things that remain constant.
A recurring trope of the record is the idea of traveling a long way only to arrive where you started. On “Modern Blue,” an uptempo rocker released as the album’s first single, Cash sings: “I went to Barcelona on the midnight train/ I walked the streets of Paris in the pouring rain/ I flew across an island in the Northern Sea/ And I ended up in Memphis, Tennessee.” On the opening track, “A Feather’s Not A Bird,” she states: “I burned up seven lives and I used up all my charms/ I took the long way home just to end up in your arms.” This phrase — “The Long Way Home” — is then reprised as the title of a later song about finding comfort in what once was spurned.
“Etta’s Tune” is sung from the perspective of Marshall Grant — Johnny Cash’s original bass player who passed away in 2011 — to Etta, his wife of 65 years. He asks her to leave their past alone (“Don’t stare into those photos/ Don’t analyze my eyes”), even as he himself dwells on it (“There were days you paced the kitchen/ There were nights that felt like jail… I traveled for a million miles while you were standing still”). “The Sunken Lands” is about the part of Arkansas where Johnny Cash grew up (and where his boyhood home is scheduled to open as a museum this year). Cash paints a vivid picture of an economically depressed and dusty place, ending the song with her paternal grandmother’s fairy tale escape: “The river rises and she sails away/ She could never stay.”
Not everything on The River & The Thread covers this same thematic terrain. “Night School” is a delicate, inscrutable song set amid the “water, heat, and moon” and “never-ending rules” of Mobile, Alabama. “When The Master Calls The Roll” is a big, old-fashioned Civil War ballad with a rousing chorus of guest vocalists that includes Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Tony Joe White, Amy Helm, and Cash’s first husband, Rodney Crowell.
Cash co-wrote The River & The Thread with her second (and current) husband, John Leventhal, who also produced. The sonic palette is a slick and elegant mix of pop, rock, folk, blues, and soul. There are some wonderful details throughout: the ethereal backing vocals and evocative mandolin playing on “The Sunken Lands,” for example, or the restrained but expressive percussion that anchors “Tell Heaven.” There are also some moments — the rhyming of “hero” with “zero” on “When The Master Calls The Roll,” or the distorted guitar solo on the album’s closer, “Money Road” — that might draw an eye roll from even the most amenable listener.
The title The River & The Thread takes us back to those core themes of personal history, transience, and constancy. On “A Feather’s Not A Bird,” Cash sings that she needs to “learn to love the thread,” and on “Money Road”: “You can cross the bridge and carve your name/ But the river stays the same.” “Money Road” is about a trip that Cash and Leventhal took down Route 61 along the Mississippi. It opens with the line, “I was dreaming about the Tallahatchie Bridge,” making an explicit connection to Bobbie Gentry’s Southern classic, “Ode to Billie Joe.” But like “Billie Joe” — which found nearly universal popularity in 1967 — The River & The Thread transcends its geographical markers. It is an open-hearted piece of Americana, filled with music that is literate, narrative, and just a little bit strange.