ROSANNE CASH                          

Her latest album captures the heart and soul of the South in song  

Though Rosanne Cash leads a richly textured urban life in New York, the South has always haunted her. Born in Memphis but reared in Southern California, at 58, she realizes that there is no such thing as separating yourself from something that is part of you. From her earliest recordings, she has always been at once part of the indigenous music of the South—she’s had 11 No. 1 country records—and beyond it. Her stunning new set, The River & the Thread, more country than virtually anything on country radio, finds her plowing new earth both melodically and thematically. Following the success of 2009’s The List, a covers collection of classic country drawn from a syllabus her father, Johnny Cash, once made to further her musical schooling, Cash wanted to return to songwriting, but “I didn’t want to just write a CD of 10 songs off the top of my head.”

After beginning to make road trips to Arkansas to help restore her dad’s boyhood home, she realized as the highways flashed by that she needed to map the landscape of the South—and its soul—in song. Eventually came side trips to artisan textile workers in Florence, Ala., the Dockery Farms Plantation (largely believed to be the birthplace of the Delta Blues) in Cleveland, Ms., and Money, Ms., where the 1955 murder of Emmett Till helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement. “If I never make another album,” she says, “I will be content because I made this one.”

What was your goal?

It feels like, if not a completion, that everything that came before was leading up to this. I see it as a map of the Southern soul, my own and others’, but also a real geographical map.


Is this a departure for you?

Yeah, I don’t see the departure so much as I see the integration. But I know why the press release said that, because The List was more stylized and created with respect to a certain tradition. But “departure” meaning, I guess, going back to the South and really embracing that in a whole new way, feeling my heart crack open to the South again. And there are songs in there that are unlike anything I’ve ever done. “Night School” is not like anything I’ve ever done, nor is “A Feather’s Not a Bird.”


In what sense?

The orchestral arrangement of “Night School,” and how melodically different it is from anything I’ve approached before. And also, the really gritty, swampiness of some of the songs, which was great.


How did you work with your husband, John Leventhal? 

He wrote the music for all the songs. But that’s not how we usually work together. Sometimes he wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics. We’ve co-written quite a bit, like “Burn Down This Town” [on Black Cadillac], but never an entire album where we wrote all the songs together. That process was the most difficult and rewarding, to keep refining the vision for it. He kept reminding me to put the characters in my songs—like Etta Grant in “Etta’s Tune,” and my grandmother in “The Sunken Lands,” and then Robert Johnson and Emmett Till in “Money Road”—and not have it all be a first-person record. The landscape of the South, both physically and soulwise, was heavily peopled.


You recorded a gospel song.

If we were going to do a record representative of the South, we had to include a gospel song. But neither John nor I are religious. Obviously, art and music are deeply spiritual pursuits, and we have our own concepts of God. But neither of us is allied with any church or religion. So we were going, “But we have to put a gospel song on a Southern album!” (laughs) So we wrote “Tell Heaven,” about the longing for connection to something that’s greater than yourself.


How did you choose collaborators?

We wanted guests who had some connection to the South. [The Civil Wars’] John Paul White and I had become friends, and Joy Williams, too. I just loved his voice, and I loved him as a person. He’s a good soul. And he just seemed kind of perfect for “Etta’s Tune.”


Tell us about “When the Master Calls the Roll,” which you wrote with John and your ex-husband Rodney Crowell.

I kept revisiting that song saying, “I really love that melody. Do you think Rodney would be open to different lyrics?” I found a soldier on a Civil War database named William Cash. I went on Ancestry.com and found all these women in the right age group who never married, and I figured they were the fiancées of these soldiers who never came home. So I picked one of those women, Mary Ann. Rodney happened to be in New York, and he came over and worked on this song with me. So when we came up with the framework of the Civil War, I wanted this couple to marry, and I wanted William to have his bugle in his hand when he went off to war. Rodney said, “What if it was his father’s rifle? And what else would he have in his hand?” And I said, “Well, her locket.” One day I was standing in the shower, and I realized William was going to die, and that he was from Virginia. That last line came to me: “Oh, Virginia, whence I came, I’ll see you when I’m younger / And I’ll know you by your hills again, this time from six feet under.” And I just started weeping. The part about “I’ll see you when I’m younger”—only knowing it as a youth, and never as an old man. It was just so moving to me.


Do you think you were meant to write that song?

Well, that sounds self-aggrandizing. I think there are songs that are complete, out in the universe, and you’re really lucky if you can get your hands on one—if you’ve gotten to a place in your songwriting that you can receive it. We were kind of groping for them, and we got that one.

Your integration of pop, rock, the South, your dad—that’s part of what informs the song “50,000 Watts.”

Listening to FM growing up in Southern California, you would hear Miles Davis followed by George Jones. It was so ecumenical and so incredibly inspirational—Santana followed by Merrilee Rush, followed by Jefferson Airplane, followed by Bobbie Gentry. It was inspiring! You got this really expansive sense of music—there were no boundaries, no borders, no allegiance to be paid to any one type of genre, that music in itself was a religion, and yet not a dogma. I was imagining not just my dad, but all those kids in the South. And even

Ry Cooder—I had a conversation with him about this, that when he was a kid, the radio was this portal into possibility. Ry said to me, he heard “Hey, Porter” on the radio, and he thought, “There are people out there like me. I can live in this world.” And there was real salvation—when your life was so hard and you heard this music, you thought, “This will save me. This is

redemption, right here.”

–Alanna Nash


comment closed

Copyright © 2014 M Music & Musicians Magazine ·