Rosanne Cash "The River & The Thread"

Rosanne Cash journeys through the American south in search of her familial and musical roots

It’s amazing how heritage plays a role in a life, how a location can be part of who you are even if you’ve had minimal experience with it. Although she was born in Memphis, Tennessee where her father Johnny Cash was recording at Sun Records, Rosanne Cash only lived there till she was three. She grew up a child of sunny California. Following her father’s death in 2003 she released several personally revealing records that examine her relationship with her family, particularly her father. The River & The Thread takes Cash to her roots, literally, as she examines the land that molded her family - the American deep South.   

Cash’s journey was spurred by a request from Arkansas State University to purchase her father’s boyhood home which lay in ruins. Cash’s visits to the area inspired a wave of interest and pride in her ancestry. Accompanied by her husband, producer and musician John Leventhal, the pair began exploring the region, traveling from her birth home, to the dilapidated grocery store where Emmett Till was accosted, on to the gravesite of Robert Johnston, and a memorable visit to the Tallahatchie Bridge. (The album cover was taken on the Tallahatchie bridge.) The pair began writing songs that capture what Cash calls a transcendent experience.

Instead of focusing only on her family, Cash writes about people who intersected with her folks, and creates characters who reel in the magic and mystery of the environs. “Etta’s Tune” is an endearing song written for Etta Grant, the widow of Marshall Grant, the original bassist for Johnny Cash’s band The Tennessee Two. Cash adeptly captures the couple’s enduring love through the use of a phrase the pair greeted each day with – “what’s the temperature, dear?” “When the Master Calls the Roll,” written with ex-husband Rodney Crowell, is a Civil War love ballad that records the tremendous personal price of the conflict. Taking place in Virginia, it is also the only song that does not take place in the delta region.

Many songs find Cash exploring her own disconnected relationship to the south. “World of Strange Design” explores that alienation. It was recorded in Derek Trucks’ Swamp Rag Studios and features Trucks’ guitar work as well as several members of his band. “Money Road” named after the lane inhabited by a young Johnny Cash, plays as metaphor for Rosanne’s journey. “A Feather’s Not a Bird” again follows this thread and is partially inspired by Cash’s learning to sew.

Like her father before her Rosanne Cash is a great story teller who is getting better with age. She has an eye for detail and an ear for atmosphere. Her voice is as rich as the rivers and field of which she sings. The River & The Thread features delicate arrangements and subtle production, allowing the melody and stories the room to expand. I don’t believe it is hyperbole to say that this is a brilliant album that ranks as her best to date. I don’t doubt that there is more mesmerizing music to come from a woman who does her heritage proud.

Rosemary Welsch (Afternoon Host)