This is the best album of Rosanne Cash's career. Powerful, poignant, and intensely personal, The River And The Thread is Cash's musical autobiography, a mystical journey through the South on Highway 61.
If you haven't checked in in with her in awhile, she's no longer the girl who announced that she “Don't wear pajamas and I don't sniff glue” on “What Kinda Girl?” from '81's Seven Year Ache.
This time out, she's literally following in her father's footsteps, retracing his past to find out more about how she came to be who she's become.
The seeds for what would become the album were sown in 2008 after Arkansas State University purchased her father's home in Dyess, Ark., and asked her to aid in the restoration and the fund-raising for the project. Cash liked the idea, the first Johnny Cash project she had wanted to get behind, to preserve her father's legacy for her children and to participate in something she thought he would have been proud of as well.
Cash and husband and Thread producer/arranger/instrumentalist John Leventhal took a long road trip along Highway 61, stopping frequently along the way to reconnect with figures from her father's past including former Tennessee Three bassist Marshall Grant, who Cash thought of as her surrogate dad. Grant passed away in 2011, prompting Cash to write “Etta's Song,” for Grant's wife, which became the first song for the album. And even though it was written about Grant, parts of it could just as easily be applied to her father as well: “I tore up all the highways/ now there's nothing left to say.” But fortunately for us there is more to say, and Cash says it exquisitely.
Although the lyrics are mostly Cash's, she's quick to point out that the record was a collaborative project with her husband, telling the New York Times “I wrote 95 percent of the lyrics and John wrote 98 percent of the music. The only time we ventured into each other’s realm was to complain.”
She had more outside help as well, from an aptly named Master's Choir consisting of Levon Helm's daughter Amy, ex-husband Rodney Crowell, John Prine, Kris Kristofferson and Tony Joe White, all harmonizing on “When the Master Calls The Roll.”
As intimidating as that group of talent might be, Cash is not overshadowed by it. Her voice is folkier than the rest of her kin, her delivery more understated, but her voice cuts through, full of emotion without sounding overblown or forced.
"When The Master Calls The Roll" was a three-way collaboration between ex husband Crowell, Cash, and Leventhal, inspired when her 14-year-old son's project on the Civil War uncovered a photo of an ancestor, Union soldier William Cash, and Rosanne discovered another relative from that era, Mary Ann. The song is a poignant love story of a young man who leaves his new bride to go off to war, cut down in battle with his father's rifle in one hand, her locket in the other. As he lies dying, he thinks once more of his Virginia homeland, composing his own epitaph: “I'll know you by your hills again/this time from six feet under.”
Cash's voice has mellowed and deepened over the years, and has a world-weary sensibility due in part to the medical problems she's endured, including brain surgery in '07 for a disorder that disrupted the flow of spinal fluid to her cerebellum, and polyps on her vocal chords in '98 that left her unable to sing for a time and a recurring bout three years ago that again took her voice away for a four month period.
But there's no evidence of self pity here. Her voice is soothing even when the lyrics are not. And there's some rough stuff here lyrically, as these lines from the dirge-like “World Of Strange Design:” “We talk about your drinking/ but not about your thirst/ you set out across the minefield/like you were rounding first.”
There are no false steps here, no weak cuts. Cash is a survivor, and if her worldview is not always blissfully optimistic, it's certainly down to earth. Even if some of her protagonists don't survive, their ideals do. And when their stories are told in Cash's voice, they're always worth a listen.
By Grant Britt