Q & A: Rosanne Cash Talks About Her New Album, The River and the Thread

Reaching back to her Southern roots made her closer to family and history

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Clay Patrick McBride

Rosanne Cash/ Photograph by Clay Patrick McBride

Rosanne Cash spent years running from her father’s shadow. Now at 58, and on the cusp of releasing a new album, Cash is fully embracing the legacy of the man in black, Johnny Cash. “You push things away when you’re young,” the singer-songwriter said in a recent interview with TIME. “Then when you’re older, you end up embracing them.”

Cash began the process of exploring her family and their history through music on her 2006 release Black Cadillac, which looked at the deaths of her parents. She followed that with 2009′s The List, an album comprised of covers of her father’s favorite songs. That effort garnered her two Grammy Award nominations and took home Album of the Year at the Americana Music Awards.

Now, on The River and the Thread, Cash explores the American South, where she was born and her parents were raised. The genesis for the album came from a series of trips Cash took through the southern states as she helped raise funds for Arkansas State University’s effort to purchase and restore her father’s childhood home in Dyess, Arkansas. The album contains 11 original songs written by Cash and her husband John Leventhal, who served as producer, arranger and guitarist.

The album, which features appearances by Kris Kristofferson, Allison Moorer, John Prine, John Paul White (The Civil Wars) and Gabe Witcher (The Punch Brothers), paints a beautiful and complex portrait of the American South seen through the eyes of a prodigal daughter come home.

We talked to Cash from her home in New York City about the album, her travels and her journey.

This is your first album of original material since 2006. Have these songs been percolating since then?

A couple were in partial percolation. I had written a chorus for “Modern Blue” and “A Feather’s Not A Bird,” but the rest really started with the trips with the trips down south that John and I were taking starting in 2011. Virtually all the songs got written since 2011. I had written some other things — other songs and some prose — but they were not part of a theme like these are.

What does the title The River and the Thread refer to?

The river is the Mississippi, because all of the songs are about the Delta, except for “When the Master Calls the Roll” which is about Virginia. As well as the river of your ancestors and your past, as Thornton Wilder says, You step into the river of time and you step out. The thread is a literal thread. My friend Natalie Chanin tought me how to sew, and going down to Florence, Alabama, started the whole album. She said this incredible thing to me when she was teaching me how to sew, which is “You have to learn to love the thread.” She wasn’t speaking metaphorically, but it became metaphorical. So they are both literal and symbolic.

The List, which you put out in 2010, was very successful, but it was all cover songs. As a songwriter, was the success of that album a little frustrating?

It was disconcerting to say the least! It was fun doing it, but when it became successful it was like, “Oh wow, people prefer me doing covers better than my own songs!,” which was just a moment of profound insecurity. I wanted to get back to what I thought my central role in this world is, which is songwriting.

It seems like you approached this album a little differently, though, where it’s very personal, but many of the songs are in the third person, telling the stories of a lot of different characters.

It was! I had never written an album with so many songs in the third person, character or narrative driven, but there is still so much of me in this, even with poetic license. “A Feather Is Not A Bird,” that’s my story of the South. “Modern Blue,” that’s me and John traveling the world and finding our way back home, which is really each other. Memphis becoming a sign post for finding each other as well as for the real Memphis. John kept pushing me out of myself telling me not to write about myself, not to write about my feelings. He was pushing me to write even more in the third person, but I think we’re both happy with the way the album turned out.

What made you want to explore your Southern roots now?

Arkansas State University bought my father’s boyhood home and they asked the family if we wanted to be involved in the restoration and the fundraising for turning it into a music heritage site right there at the edge of the Delta. I was really interested in doing that not only to honor my own ancestry and my dad, but for my kids. This will be a really important touchstone for my children and their children. I started going down for these fundraising events. The first one was with Kris Kristofferson and George Jones and it was amazing, but while I was down there Marshall Grant died. He was my dad’s original bass player and he played bass the day he had an aneurysm. I saw him one last time with that big stand-up bass guitar and it was a really powerful moment. So we wrote “Etta’s Tune,” which is about him.

That was a very striking tune. Can you tell me about it?

Marshall and Etta were married for 63 years and he was a touring musician, so I think that was some kind of record. She said to me — they were both in their mid-80s— that everyday of their life they would wake up and say, “What’s the temperature, darlin’?” and when I repeated that to John he said, “Oh that’s the first line of a song.” And it was.

And the rest of the songs were inspired by the people and places you met on your road trips down South?

“A Feather’s Not A Bird” was definitely inspired by Natalie teaching me to sew. There’s really a magic wall, it exists! Outside of Florence, it’s the longest non-mortared wall in America and it’s on this sacred Native American site. We did drive through Muscles Shoals or what I call “the strongest shoals.” All of that happened. We were on Money Road, we drove that and the proximity between Robert Johnson’s grave and where Emmett Till was murdered and the Tallahatchie Bridge it is just shocking how close these places are to each other. It’s like a vortex!

Was it that feeling of a vortex that inspired the line about dreaming on the Tallahatchie bridge?

That spot looms large in the imagination because of the Bobbie Gentry song and when we got there we didn’t realize that it’s literally right around the corner from the candy store where Emmett Till supposedly “flirted” with a white woman and was killed and the Civil Rights era began. And Robert Johnson’s grave is just a few miles up the road! There was so much musical history in that one corner of America and it was hard to take it all in. It just left such a powerful imprint and seemed like a good place to end the album — driving on Money Road.

What did you find most surprising about revisiting the South?

I think how open my heart was, without working at it. I had kept the South at a distance for many years and it had felt sort of suffocating to me and I thought it was just a point in my past. Obviously my parents were Southerners so I had a bit of it in me, but I didn’t realize how powerful my connection was and my sense of place there. The fact that I am a New Yorker but one generation back my family was cotton farmers. That’s just a powerful thought!

Your dad has been gone for 10 years now, do you feel more connected him through your exploration of the South?

I think so, but I also felt connected to my entire extended family. I had been to the house in Dyess before when my dad took us all there when I was a teenager, but to go back there as a grown woman and see “Oh, this is how far my father walked to school” and “Oh, this is how hard my grandmother’s life was” — that just really struck me. Women of that generation who were in poverty had rough, hard almost medieval lives. she picked cotton alongside the men and raised the kids and cooked and cleaned and took care of the men. That is a hard life!

I understand that you wrote “When The Master Calls The Roll” with your husband and your ex-husband. How did that happen?

Yeah, isn’t that something? John and Rodney [Crowell] had written this song with that melody for Emmy Lou [Harris], and I asked if I can have it instead and they said, “No, we wrote it for her.” But she didn’t record it and I kept thinking about that melody, and then my son was doing a project on the Civil War and I told him that he had family on both sides of the Civil War, with Cashes on the Union and Confederate sides. I showed him the Civil War database had a picture of William Cash and I got really into it and started researching more, and I asked John if he thought Rodney would rewrite the song and he said “No, don’t ask him, that’s not appropriate.” But I asked him anyway and he said yes. I was obsessed with the characters for a long time. I still think about them all the time. They are real characters. Someone asked me if I was going to write a sequel to let us know what happened to Mary Ann and I thought what a great idea.

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