There is an unbroken line that runs through the Deep South like a river. It can be traced throughout history, through the anguished soul of the land and its people. It’s where our nation divided itself during the Civil War. It’s where the restless outcry for justice gave birth to the Civil Rights Movement. The South has been destroyed and rebuilt. It has been enslaved, judged, condemned, and made to conform. But, it has also given birth to an angel-muse that has spoken through the music and art of its common people. The music came via the roadhouses, cotton fields, honky-tonks, and churches. It came through the words of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. The music and the word healed the land. Today the South is the soul of America, rich with stories to tell. If you were born there, even though you leave at a young age, it is always home. It is always a place you cannot describe but know its pull like a full-moon tide.
And so it is for one of the finest singer-songwriters and authors in America today: Rosanne Cash. Her recent experience of her homeland creates a near-hypnotic ambiance in her ode to the South: 2014’s Grammy-winning The River and the Thread.
Over the last decade she has released a compelling and organic trilogy of albums, which travels through the geography of her heart. It began in 2006 with Black Cadillac, recorded in the midst of severe grief and loss. Within the span of two years she lost some of the most significant people in her life, including her father, Johnny Cash. The trilogy continued on 2009’s The List, a collection of interpretations of songs drawn from a list her father gave her of 100 essential American country and folk songs. Now the circle is complete with her masterful suite of songs, arguably her best album since King’s Record Shop.
Rosanne Cash, who today can boast 21 songs on country music’s top-40 chart— with 11 of them number one and a Grammy—must seem to the country music establishment like quite an enigma. At the peak of her popularity, she walked away from it all. While this album, like her last six dating back to 1990, has shed any hint of country pop accommodation, The River and the Thread has raised the art of the recorded song above most of mainstream popular music today. It is also, for the Americana music world, an example of how songwriting, performance, and production can remain simple, organic and real without stripping everything down or simply recording live in the studio. With a balanced approach, she walks the line between potential sentimentality and authenticity. Her songs and their production always land on the side of the latter, hitting just the right emotional note. A lot of credit goes to her husband and producer John Leventhal for his carefully crafted production work. Combining electric and acoustic instruments, with well-placed tremolo electric, muddy Delta slide guitar, and a variety of other instruments, every piece of the picture leads to a full and masterful focus on the singer and the song.
The River and the Thread is about movement, the passage of time, the ticking of the internal clock that follows us all. It’s told through characters, stories, and personal tales that can only grow from the integrated nature of the songwriter’s intuition and spirit. But, like most success that reaches this kind of depth, it has come out of the hardship of transitions and trials over the last ten years. Without Black Cadillac and The List, this album would not have been possible. Like the land itself, Rosanne has battled against her own inner demons and struggled to shed the long-cast shadow of her famous father and all that goes with the blessing and the curse of being the child of a celebrity. In the end, that shadow doesn’t seem so long with the completion of this trilogy—and especially this album. The result has been acceptance of her father’s legacy and her role in it. It portrays a singer-songwriter who has never sounded more comfortable in her own skin than on this album. But, ironically, a theme that runs through it is coming home. It’s a kind of prodigal return to a place and people she once tried to escape only to find that the most compelling voices of her bloodline were calling her home. These voices can be heard in the stories and songs on the disc. In a recent interview, I asked her about the genesis of this album. “It started innocuously,” she recalled. “Arkansas State University wanted to restore my Dad’s childhood home in the New Deal colony where he lived; I thought it would be great. I told them I was interested in the project. John and I went down to the South several times.”
As the project progressed, Cash felt the unshakable sensation of returning home. She found that unbroken line. She was picking up a thread of personal enlightenment. As she followed, it led her through the heart of the South, but it was not the stereotyped place we’ve heard about so many times. This South was the place she knew in her childhood during the ’50s. She was born in Memphis in 1955 just as her father was recording “Hey Porter” and “Cry, Cry, Cry” for Sam Phillips at Sun Records.
So she took to the highway. “We took a long road trip and drove through Delta country. We went to Robert Johnson’s grave, the Tallahatchie Bridge, and to the town where Emmett Till was killed.”
The idea for the album’s theme came from her visit with a well-known fashion designer in Alabama named Natalie Chanin. Sometimes called Alabama Chanin, she has, over the last 20 years, paralleled Americana music in providing fashion styles drawn from her region and working with the continuity of the past and present without regard for age or class. Ironically, Chanin’s hometown is Florence, Alabama, home to such cultural icons as W.C. Handy, “Father of the Blues”; Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records who discovered Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash; and T.S. Stribling, author of the Vaiden Triology, stories of the South that foreshadows William Faulkner. She explained, “I was visiting with Natalie; she’s like a sister to me. I wear her clothes all the time. During our visit she kept saying, ‘You have to love the thread; love the thread.’” She continued, “A chill went over me when I heard those words. So, we went as far back as it goes, where the thread begins.” The other creative and spiritual catalyst for the new album in Florence is called the Stone Wall. A native American of Cherokee decent, Tom Hendrix built the longest free-standing non-mortared wall in North America. It was built in memory of his great-grandmother. As Rosanne describes it, “It is imbued with secrets, mystery, and power. Walking the wall is a spiritually powerful experience.”
It became apparent to Rosanne and John that this album was to be about the South. However, with her husband’s encouragement, she approached the songs in a new way. “It’s the most I’ve ever written in the third person. I got out of my own narrative and looked through the eyes of a character.”
This new approach for Cash as a songwriter showed up in the first song recorded for the album, the poignant and touching, “Etta’s Tune.” “My Dad’s bass player, Marshall Grant, was like a surrogate father to me. He died in 2011. His wife, Etta, and I talked on the phone frequently.” The song grew from those conversations and her memory of Johnny Cash’s best friend and his wife of 65 years. The song rings with true emotion, compassion, and love for a dear friend. “They had been a part of my life forever. Marshall was the third person to hold me after I was born. It’s an emotional song and all true in its details. I’ve never written a song like it before.”
The album’s centerpiece is “When the Master Calls Us Home.” It began as a collaboration between John Leventhal and Rosanne’s ex-husband, Rodney Crowell. They had written a song for Emmylou Harris. “I heard the words ‘girl with hair of flaming red seeking perfect lover,’ Rosanne explained. “Rodney found them in a 19th-century personal advertisement. It was right around the time of the Civil War.” When Emmylou didn’t record the song, Rosanne came up with an idea. “I didn’t really like the rest of the song. So, I wanted to rewrite it. I asked Rodney and he said sure, he’d write it with me. At the same time, my son was doing a project on the Civil War. There were Cash’s on both sides of the war,” she continued. “Doing some of the genealogy research, I found a picture of William Cash. I saw from his genealogy he had a wife, Mary Ann Cash. I looked for women from the era around the Civil War who were widows and I found her name. I put them together. Rodney and I worked on the lyrics.” She said. “He died and was buried in Virginia.” With some emotion in her voice Roseanne also said, “It’s the most intense experience I’ve ever had writing lyrics. I would wake up in the middle of the night feeling like they were reaching out to me to tell their story. It’s like they had their own life that had to be written.”
Oftentimes when we feel broken and cracked open, when it feels like things are falling apart, the compassion experienced by Rosanne in “Etta’s Tune” and “When the Master Calls Us Home” can seep into the human heart. For Rosanne, the last ten years have contained enough trials to fill more than one lifetime and from the lyrics on this album, she has a wellspring of compassion to draw from.
In 2003 came the death of her step-mother, June Carter-Cash, followed by her Dad’s passing. Before 2003 was over, she would lose her half-sister Rosie Nix Adams, a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning. Her mother, Vivian Liberto, passed away on May 24, 2005, Rosanne’s 50th birthday. In 2006 she would chronicle the loss and the severe emotional terrain on the first of the Southern Triology, Black Cadillac.
In 2007, after a series of severe headaches and other symptoms, Rosanne was diagnosed with a rare disorder called Chairi Malformation, which required brain surgery. For someone with such a strong imagination and creative drive, the idea of brain surgery is a daunting thing. Following successful surgery and an extended period of rehabilitation, it was clear that nothing was lost as her writing continued. In 2010, her memoir, Composed, was published to rave reviews. She has also published essays in the New York Times and Rolling Stone magazine.
The years that followed began the process of spiritual healing, which led her to her award-winning album, 2009’s The List. The creative process behind the Grammy-nominated album is well-covered in the book Always Been There: Rosanne Cash, The List, and the Spirit of American Music by Michael Streissguth. It allowed her to explore American music recommended to her by Johnny Cash. Somewhere in the process, she found redemption.
The significance of her musical legacy and the history behind it underscores the healing power of music and its makers. Few songwriters of the last 50 years have been able to articulate the dark journey through grief and loss in song and prose as well as Rosanne Cash. What the completed southern trilogy reveals is the alchemy of creativity when it is allowed to flow through the artist. The albums released since the days of her phenomenal popular chart success in country music have been uncompromisingly well-crafted collections, with an emphasis on the reflective and internal impressions of a poet. However, with the release of Black Cadillac, The List, and, finally, The River and the Thread, she has completed something that has helped her find “the long way home,” as she mentions throughout the album.
While Black Cadillac moved through a range of raw emotions relating to the experience of loss and grief, The List has the feeling of someone who has reached acceptance of the loss. She is ready to embrace something as significant as the cherished songs of her late father. She has gone from the darkness of sorrow to hearing the music again in the light of day. Finally, The River and the Thread is the work of an artist who is now seeing through the fog of the past and is able to step out in compassion and embrace the suffering others. She has shed the cocoon of egocentric grief. The eyes that have been focused on one’s own personal grief turn outward with compassion for others ready to tell their stories. It is a significant shift. In so doing, she has taken the raw material of her own pain and transformed it into healing medicine. Like the South, she has found her healing through the music and the art. Only a few artists come to mind who have been vulnerable and true enough to their own muse to allow this to happen. Leonard Cohen comes to mind. Mickey Newbury covered similar ground. After life falls apart, it takes great compassion and humility to go back and find the commonalities and connections. According to Rosanne, “This album is about connecting things. It is the long way home. We’ve made so many trips and turns and things get convoluted with side trips and all. Then, we comeback to where started from. There is always a feeling in the air in the South, like I’m home again. I know there are the rigid stereotypes about the South. But, this album is about giving way to another South. It’s the South of the Delta blues, of Faulkner, and of great music.”
If this South is the true one, and I suspect it is, then Rosanne Cash has found it. The River and the Thread is one step toward revealing it. She told me before we concluded the interview, “I feel like this is the one. If I never made a record again, I would be happy because I made this album.”
Rosanne can see the true South now in the eyes of her family, the stories of life she has already experienced, and in the haunting voice of a muse that keeps calling her forward to another truth, another poem, a new song, and one more step along this journey in the geography of her own spirit and ultimately ours as well.
Roseanne Cash comes to Poway Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, March 11, 8pm. The Center is located at 15498 Espola Road in Poway. For further details and ticket information, go to powaycenter.com.