By Kurt Wolff
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.