With her newest album, ROSANNE CASH is going back to her musical — and geographical — roots.
Creatively speaking, it’s been a decade of deep reflection for singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash.
The daughter of American music icon Johnny Cash, she wrote about the death of her parents on the 2006 song cycle Black Cadillac, then explored an album of covers her father had hand-picked in her 2009 collection, The List. With her latest, The River & the Thread (Blue Note, $15), she’s created another concept album of sorts: an emotional travelogue centered on the South and the Mississippi Delta, where her family history is rooted.
“In some ways, I saw it as the third part of a trilogy,” Cash says. “Black Cadillac was about mourning and loss and exploring that emotional landscape; The List was really about a musical legacy and claiming that. This record embraces all of it: the legacy, the geography, the music of the Delta and beyond.”
In 2011, Arkansas State University purchased Johnny Cash’s boyhood home — which had been part of a New Deal farming colony in Dyess, Ark. — with the idea of turning it into a historical site.
Rosanne signed on to help in the effort and began visiting the area regularly for fundraising events and to spend time walking in her father’s footsteps. “I knew my father had a hard life as a boy. But you go see these farms, and the soil is so hard to till; the work was so backbreaking. In modern times, I don’t think we can imagine how difficult it was. All of that came alive for me.”
Along with her husband and longtime producer, John Leventhal, Cash began penning a series of songs sparked by her travels and experiences, all of them connected by a shared sense of the South. “We laid a spiritual and emotional map over the geographical map when we were writing the songs,” she says.
The 11-track album offers a mix of the personal and the historical. Songs like “Etta’s Tune” — a poignant tribute to the family of Marshall Grant, Johnny Cash’s longtime bassist and a surrogate father figure to Rosanne before he passed away in 2011 — slot alongside narratives about the Civil War and the Great Depression, while the closing epic, “Money Road,” entwines the stories of civil rights martyr Emmett Till and mysterious bluesman Robert Johnson. Cash is aided in her effort by a smattering of special guests, including Kris Kristofferson, The Civil Wars’ John Paul White and Rodney Crowell.
Cash says writing and recording the album was about more than just exhuming the past. “It was about rediscovering it, really. It felt like my heart cracked open to those places and those people in a new way.”