Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread
A feather’s not a bird
The rain is not the sea
A stone is not a mountain
But a river runs through me
Rosanne Cash wrote these words before The River & The Thread was conceived, but the rest of the song was apparently waiting for a geographical context before it showed itself.
The context that the chorus found was a trip through the edges of Appalachia, over to the top of the Mississippi Delta, and across the River into Arkansas. Ms. Cash knew that it had happened during a sewing lesson from a friend in Florence, Alabama. Ms. Cash: “We sat down together and she threaded my needle. She said, ‘You have to love the thread,’ and I felt a chill go through me.” That chill sparked a set of intentional journeys back into the South and gave us a bushel basket full of beautiful songs.
Ms. Cash is certainly of the South, but not in it. Born in Memphis and schooled (both literally and figuratively) in Nashville, she has done her time on this side of the surveyors’ line. But she lived in California as a child, and as an adult she chose to live at different times on the both sides of the US. She worked in London for a while prior to the beginning of her musical career, and she recorded her first album in Germany. She has made New York City her home for about two decades. Like the best of our Southern alums, Ms. Cash’s worldview transcends her beginnings. Again like the best, The River & The Thread shows that she still embraces (and wrestles with) the Southern demons. In her comments about the song Money Road, she says, “we were in a vortex of music, tragedy and revolution. That kind of thing stays with you forever. You can leave, but you can’t go away.”
The trips that became The River & The Thread included stops at Civil War battlefields, Robert Johnson’s grave, her father’s birthplace, the Tallahatchie River, Mobile, and the Natchez Trace. There was a songwriting collaboration with ex-husband Rodney Crowell. Ms. Cash also revisited her
longstanding connection to Etta Grant and her recently-deceased husband Marshall, who played bass for Johnny Cash back in the day. Quite a journey.
Much of the album’s writing seems informed both by Ms. Cash’s skills as a songwriter and a writer of prose (for an excellent example of her prose and more background on parts of this record, see her piece in the recent music edition of Oxford American). There’s a careful attention to detail while never losing the poetry along the way. Husband John Leventhal is the ultimate partner in this labor of love, setting Ms. Cash’s words to music, playing on the record, and producing. While intentional, The River & The Thread in its final form never feels project-like. Each of the songs would stand on its own in any record Ms. Cash might have recorded. As a collection, the songs weave together clear-eyed glimpses of the South in the best of the themed-album tradition.
Modern Blue, the one cut on this record with a pop feel, might serve as the epilogue. It’s a big song, and Ms. Cash’s silky smooth voice ties Barcelona and Paris to Memphis, reminding us of the connections between all places and all people. Son Jake Leventhal makes his debut on this one, reminding us again that the river and the thread go on and on.
The River & The Thread released on January 14.
Quotes are from the excellent liner notes in the deluxe edition of the album.