In the decade since Rosanne Cash returned to music following a two-and-a-half year silence caused by a vocal chord polyp, she’s gone inward, looking to her musical and personal legacy for creative inspiration. As a result, Cash has made works that display her spectacular grace and dignity in the face of crippling loss.
This inward exploration reaches a new zenith on The River & The Thread, her first self-penned record since 2006, and a love letter to the southern United States. When Arkansas State University contacted Cash about acquiring her father’s boyhood home in Dyess, she and her husband John Leventhal (who co-wrote, produced, and arranged the record) took many extended trips to the region, visiting historical landmarks, and overseeing the purchase and renovation of her dad’s childhood home.
To raise the funds needed to purchase the property, Cash held a series of concerts in which everyone from George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson performed. Marshall Grant, her father’s bass player in the Tennessee Two and her ‘surrogate dad’, was also scheduled to perform but died of a brain aneurysm following show rehearsals. His death led Cash to write the first song for the project, “Etta’s Tune.” Written for Grant’s widow Etta, the song brings Grant’s voice to life as he pays tribute to the wife he’s leaving behind – “When the phone rang in the dead of night you’d always throw my bail. No you never touched the whisky, you never took the pills. I traveled for a million miles while you were standing still.” The song is extraordinary because Cash is depicting the beautiful tale of true love though Grant’s own eyes, as a second-generation source, bringing his voice to life with stunning clarity.
Mandolin driven “The Sunken Lands” uses similar techniques to paint the difficult life of her grandmother Carrie, on the terrain where Johnny grew up. The detail Cash provides is heartbreaking – from the endless work in the cotton fields (“the mud and tears melt the cotton balls”), verbal abuse from her husband (“His words are cruel, they sting like fire”), to her crying children. More than a song “The Sunken Lands” plays like a novelette from a legendary American writer. Cash has been known for her prose in recent years, and Black Cadillac played like a musical memoir, so it’s not surprising she brings those sensibilities to The River & The Thread as well.
The album’s title comes from the opening track, “A Feather’s Not A Bird.” When Cash sings, “You have to learn to love the thread,” she referencing a remark by a dear friend who’s a master seamstress in Florence, Alabama. It’s the most austere of the album’s songs, with a chorus that relies so heavily on metaphor it comes off a tad kooky. A fascination with the famous Tallahatchie Bridge (yes, the one highlighted in Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”) inspired the album’s closing track “Money Road,” an eerie ballad about the nearby street where Emmett Till flirted with a white woman and was murdered. “Money Road” boasts a great lyric, but the production is too slow and prodding for me to make a full investment in the song.
“The Long Way Home” details Cash’s personal journey, but rests in the spiritual realm on the idea of taking the long way home to ourselves, not necessarily a particular place. At 58 Cash has the life experience for such a sentiment, which only adds to the track’s deeper meaning. Even better is “Tell Heaven,” a meditation on longing and loneliness that frames Cash’s delicate whisper with a gorgeously folksy acoustic guitar. I love the gentle ease Leventhal brings to the arrangement coupled with the overall message – everything in life will be okay if you surrender your burdens to your higher power.
Cash gives a vocal master class on “Night School,” a striking ballad brought to life with the perfect sprinkling of fiddle and acoustic guitar. “50,000 Watts” uses the reach of radio wires to dispense a common prayer of love and devotion set to an upright bass, acoustic guitar, and drum heavy arrangement. “Modern Blue” has the album’s most modern sound, with electric guitars and drums creating a loudish sound that wakes up the listener. The chorus feels a little underdeveloped, but the whole song comes together by the end.
The centerpiece of The River & The Thread started as a composition Leventhal and Rodney Crowell were writing for Emmylou Harris, who never ended up recording it. As the story goes, Cash’s song Jake was researching The Civil War for school when she reminded him he had ancestors on both sides of the conflict. Inspired, Cash asked Crowell if she could rework the song (she always loved it) as a Civil War ballad about her relative William Cash, who fought for the North. After much obsession, and loss of sleep, the re-worked “When The Master Calls The Roll” was born.
“When The Master Calls The Roll” is a sweeping epic about William Lee, the love who would wait for him, and his eventual death in battle. Cash, Leventhal, and Crowell infuse the tune with so much detail and phrase each section with such precision the song quickly elevates to the echelon of masterworks. This track is so good the rest of the album, which meets just as high a standard, pales greatly in comparison.
Cash has said if she never cuts another record she’ll be fine, now that she’s made The River & The Thread. It’s easy to see why, as this is an album of a different breed, sown from a rare cloth. It’s atypical, even from singer-songwriters, to see an album this full-formed, possessing so much of the artist who created it. As tired as I am of seeing Cash mine her legacy, she continues to bring new and exciting colors to her exploration of what it means to be Johnny’s daughter. And with those colors, she may have created her best album yet.