Q&A: Rosanne Cash On the Southern Stories Behind Her Brilliant New Album, ‘The River & the Thread’

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.

Rosanne Cash

Rosanne Cash (credit: Clay Patrick McBride)

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.

John Leventhal and Rosanne Cash

John Leventhal and Rosanne Cash (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

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.

rosanne cash the river and the thread

(courtesy Blue Note Records)

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.”

Everything in it is true. [Marshall] never really resolved his memories. He’d call me every two months and just talk over and over, the same stories. That song is about not resolving your memories — ever.

And we wanted John Paul White [of the Civil Wars] to sing on it, because we thought he had the sweetness that the song deserved. But also that kind of…he’s powerful, but he’s also ephemeral in a way. We thought that was a great combination for that song. I just love the Civil Wars. I’ve loved them since the first note.

Rosanne Cash and Kris Kristofferson

Rosanne Cash with Kris Kristofferson: “Kris is like my older brother, I adore Kris.” (Rusty Russell/Getty Images)

You actually have quite a few collaborators on this album — and many on just one song, “When the Master Calls the Roll.” How did that come about?

Rodney [Crowell], John and I cowrote [“When the Master Calls the Roll”]. And we were going to be in Tennessee, and we wanted some kind of ‘voice of God’ choir on the song. The three of us started talking about who to invite, and it turned out Kris [Kristofferson] was going to be in Nashville that day. John Prine was in the neighborhood, Tony Joe White is in the neighborhood.

I’ll never forget that day, because they all showed up like staggered arrivals. And they all were old, old friends who hadn’t seen each other in a long time. Just to see them greet each other was so powerful and sweet. And then to put all of them behind glass. Tony Joe showed up and said, ‘I’m not going to sing. I just stopped by to see everybody.’ And of course we got him behind the glass. [Amy Helm also sang on the song.]

“When the Master Calls the Roll” was originally written by Rodney and John, and then you reworked it for the album?

Here’s what happened. John and Rodney wrote this song for Emmylou [Harris], with that melody and a whole different kind of lyric. I loved the song so much, and I asked if I could have it, and they said no, they had written it for Emmylou. Then Emmylou decided not to record it. A few months went by, and I said to John, “Do you think Rodney would be offended if I asked him to rewrite the lyrics with me?” And at first he said, “Oh I don’t think that’s appropriate.” And finally I said, “I’m just going to ask him.”

And at the same time, my son, who was 13, was doing a Civil War project in 8th grade. And I said to him, ‘You know you have Cash ancestors on both sides of the Civil War. there are Confederate Cashes and Union Cash soldiers.” I went on the Civil War database to show him, and this picture came up of William Cash. It was chilling.

So I became obsessed with it. I looked up in our genealogy, women who would have been 20 or 21 at the start of the Civil War, and I found a Mary Ann Cash. So I put them together. I called Rodney and said, “Would you be willing to do this?” And he said “Sure, I’ll write a Civil War ballad with you.” Just crazy. So he came over, next time he was in New York, and we started writing it.

We actually kept I think the first eight lines of the song [Rodney] had with John, because it was a real personals ad from the 19th century that he had come across: “With hair of flaming red.” Isn’t that wild? So instead of this taking this wild turn like it did in the original song, we had William and Mary Ann get together.

Well these characters started living inside my head, I’d wake up at night and think about them. I’ve never been quite as possessed with a song until we finished it. The last lines came to me about him going back to Virginia, when he was “younger.” Man, I just started weeping. I just never had quite this experience writing a song like this.

The album touches on many musical roots and styles, including a gospel song (“Tell Heaven”) that never mentions God. Was that deliberate?

When we were nearly finished with the record, John said, “You can’t write an album about the South without including a gospel song.” But neither one of us is traditionally religious. So we took that line “tell heaven” that Pops Staples sings…and wrote a secular gospel song. The second-to-last line was, “the empty sky may never take our burdens.” Because I wanted to include atheists, too. Do you know what I mean? Spiritual impulse is common to all of us, but a conception of God is not. So I wanted to honor the spiritual impulse, no matter where it went.

Many songs on the album feel autobiographical, but especially “The Long Way Home.”

There’s some of me in that, but there’s also some of my daughter. I took kind of a mosaic of that idea of the long way home. I was talking to Don Was about this, and he said, “At this point in our lives, all of us have taken a long way home. All the crazy excursions we took…. But at some point, you come home to yourself.”

You live in New York City now. Did making this record leave you longing to spend more time in the South?

It’s a fine line to walk there, because I’ve been a New Yorker for 22 years, and I didn’t want to proselytize about the South. But I did want to show the beauty of the South as I knew it. I had pushed the South away in some ways, for a while. I needed to get some distance to feel who I am apart from this influence…my parents both being Southerners. But going back these times, my heart was really cracked open to what it was. And just looking at the Delta, what came out of the Delta is unbelievable. There’s no other kind of vortex like that in the world. So not only my love but my objective appreciation increased.

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