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The South inspires and informs Rosanne Cash's 'The River & The Thread'

Rosanne Cash’s latest solo effort, ‘The River & The Thread’ sews up her place in country music history while bringing her musical past, present and future together.

By Mike Greenblatt

Rosanne Cash talks like an artist. She thinks like an artist. But in how she responds to the world, she feels like a little girl. She has that innate sense of wonder and inquisitive sense of joy in discovery. Thus, she remains forever young at heart, expressing her rapture with the universe over the course of 13 albums in 36 years.

“The River & The Thread” (Blue Note) is her masterpiece, a career-defining record so beautiful and so profound, it defies categorization. She traverses well-worn Southern locales in a musical travelogue steeped in Gothic mystery, teardrop-inducing memory and swamp-rockin’ rebellion. It serves as the third installment in a trilogy of sorts. “Black Cadillac” (2006) was drenched in Cash’s grief over the death of her father, Johnny Cash. “The List” (2009) — her first album after recovering from brain surgery — showed her coming to grips with the legacy he bequeathed to her; “The River & The Thread” shows her embracing it.

Rosanne Cash The River And The Thread

Despite posting 21 Top 40 country singles — 11 of which hit No. 1 — Cash was always a country outsider. Born in Memphis, Tenn., in 1955, but raised in California, Cash is a longtime New Yorker who’s also lived in Europe.

Her father was a U.S. soldier stationed in Germany for three years who came home and married her mother, Vivian Liberto, whom he had met at age 17 in a San Antonio, Texas, roller rink. The marriage lasted until the mid-1960s, when he fell in love with June Carter while on tour with the legendary Carter Family. Rosanne, the oldest of Cash and Liberto’s four girls, stayed with her dad during summers off from school. It’s where she received her real education.

(RELATED ARTICLE: Johnny Cash's Columbia box set dishes up rewards, rarities, challenges)

In 1979, Cash made her American record debut with “Right or Wrong.” She came into her own on “Seven Year Ache” (1981) and solidified her superstar status on “King’s Record Shop” (1987). Cash was frustrated over her label’s promotion of “Interiors” (1990), an album that reflected her sadness upon the dissolution of her marriage to singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, but she rebounded with “The Wheel” (1993).

In 1995, Cash married guitarist, producer, songwriter and collaborator John Leventhal, with whom she had co-produced “The Wheel.” She released a collection of home recordings, “10 Song Demo,” in 1996, as well as a short story collection. In 1998, while working on the album that later became 2003’s “Rules of Travel,” Cash lost her voice. A polyp on her vocal cords — which returned in 2011 — left Cash unable to sing for more than two years. But you wouldn’t be able to tell by her performance on “The River & The Thread,” which showcases her voice at its career best.

Rosanne Cash Eliot Lee Hazel

Getting into the family business can be tricky if the footsteps you’re following belong to Johnny Cash. But Rosanne Cash carved out her own place in country music — something she suspects was easier to do because she’s Cash’s daughter and not his son. Eliot Lee Hazel photo.

GOLDMINE: Congratulations on “The River & The Thread.” To make a career record like this. Oh man — it’s such a masterpiece ... every cut! This is just amazing.
ROSANNE CASH: Aw ... I am so thrilled to hear you say this. Thank you!

GM: It’s funny, but as Joni Mitchell said, you’ll be “stoking the star-maker machinery inside the popular song” soon, talking to everybody about this thing. Did the germ of this album start when Arkansas State University restored your dad’s home?
RC: It did. I started going down there because of that. And the first fund-raiser I attended, Marshall Grant [Johnny Cash’s original bassist] was there, and he came to rehearsal and he played. That very night he had an aneurysm and died. I was very close to him. He was like a surrogate dad to me. Etta, his wife of 65 years, had said to me, “Every morning of our lives, Marshall would ask me, ‘What’s the temperature, darling?’” And John, my husband, said, “That’s the first line of a song.” So that’s the first song we wrote, “Etta’s Tune.” And then the idea started to form. These powerful connections to the South, these places, these people, started to come alive for me in a deep way, and the songs started coming.

GM: You took a trip down south, and it must have made a huge impression upon you. I was amazed that in a very small geographical locale, you visited the Tallahatchie Bridge, the “Crossroads” where bluesman Robert Johnson [1911-1938] sold his soul to the devil and Money Road, the place where basically the civil rights struggle started with the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till.
RC: It did, and it shocked me. I may be naïve — and everybody down South may know of it — but I had no idea that these places were so close to each other. I mean, god, here’s this vortex deep in the delta of Mississippi. What is this about? This must be a totally unique place on Earth to have all this music come from there, plus the defining moment, the spark that set off the civil rights struggle in our country. My God! It’s what makes us all Americans ... to realize and discover such integral moments in our history like that. It was overwhelming. We drove down Money Road. We visited Robert Johnson’s grave. We went right to where Emmett Till was murdered and right around the corner from there is the Tallahatchie Bridge. John snapped this photo of me from behind looking at the water and as soon as he took it, he said, “That’s the album cover.”

Rosanne Cash publicity photo

GM: I’ve always been intrigued with the concept of “the outsider.” You weren’t raised in the South. You come to it, though, from a very interesting perspective.
RC: Yeah, which is odd, because a lot of people wouldn’t realize that. They’d think, “Oh, she’s Southern. She lives in the South. She’s from the South. She’s never left the South.” [Laughs.] Hey, I grew up in Southern California listening to Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles. I’ve lived in Europe twice, and I’ve been a New Yorker for 23 years. But both of my parents were Southern. I still have so much extended family scattered throughout the South. Two of my daughters have moved back down South. The connections run deep. My ancestry is there. In going to my dad’s boyhood home [Dyess, Ark.], I started thinking about how hard my grandmother’s life was, picking cotton and raising seven children. I may be a New Yorker, but my past is on a cotton farm in Arkansas. So you come home to these things within yourself that you think you’ve rejected your whole life, and I start to see they’ve been there all along.

GM: That’s the mark of a great artist: Take that which you might have even rebelled against as a younger person and to put it into this Gothic, creative, swampy Americana album. Is “The Sunken Lands” about your grandmother?
RC: Yeah, it is. That area of Arkansas is called “The Sunken Lands.” After an 1811 earthquake, the land actually sank, and the Mississippi River flooded over it. This land was incredibly hard to till. They call it “gumbo soil,” because it’s sticky and full of rocks. The New Deal-era colony where they lived, there were 500 cottages, and each cottage had 40 acres and a mule, so that’s what they got. A lot of the farmers gave up because it was too hard, but my grandfather and grandmother stayed and my dad was raised there.

GM: This album is so filled with analogy and symbolism. Here you have an album titled “The River & The Thread.” Its opening track is called “A Feather’s Not A Bird.” But a feather is like the thread of a bird, and you also sing how “you have to learn to love the thread.” The listener can take whatever they want from it, and I guess you wrote a lot of this to be purposely ambiguous.
RC: Sure. I did. I didn’t want to just write a diary. I’m so glad you picked up on that. In other words, the part is not the whole. And, yeah, the river is part of me. It goes through me. There are a lot of symbols and metaphors but there’s a real version and a metaphoric version. The river is the Mississippi River. But it’s also the connection to past and future in the South. And that gumbo soil? In the song “A Feather’s Not A Bird,” I say the “gumbo soul” because all of our souls are kind of sticky and mashed-up, too.

GM: It’s such a soulful song. Sequencing is so important. There’s a reason that’s first.
RC: Of course! I can’t begin to tell you how long we stressed over sequencing. It went on for weeks. And then I thought, “Nobody really cares,” y’know? And then I found out a lot of people do care. But “A Feather’s Not A Bird” maps out the whole record. It’s “The River & The Thread’s” mission statement. It had to come first. There was never any question of that.

GM: Musically, I love “Modern Blue.” You’re in an irresistible groove and then it stops dead with that beautiful cathedral organ — right in the middle of it all — and it’s just such a stark contrast. Then comes “Tell Heaven” where the very last line — talk about attention to detail — contains that gospel chorus oohing and ahhing. It’s simply chilling. And I thought its title, “Tell Heaven,” was pretty damn good advice, considering your daddy’s overt religiosity. Did that have anything to do with it at all?
RC: We wanted to write a gospel tune, because how can you do an album about the South without one, right? Gospel music is so incredibly important to Southern roots music. But neither John nor I are traditionally religious, so we wanted to actually write a gospel tune that also embraces people who do not have faith. I mean, I do have faith, but I don’t consider it particularly religious. It’s just an acknowledgement to the all-too-human impulse to want to reach out to something bigger than we are, because everybody feels that at one time or another — a place to take your burdens. But there’s a twist to it, y’know. The last line says, “The empty sky may never take our burdens, but something good will someday come our way,” meaning we can have faith in each other.

Rosanne Cash Clay Patrick McBride photo

Rosanne Cash treasured the time she was able to spend reading to her father, who was nearly blind by the end of his life. Johnny Cash’s book of choice was the Bible. “Once, though, when I didn’t have a Bible handy, I asked him if he’d like to hear some Shakespeare, and he said, ‘I’ll wait,’ ” she recalls. Clay Patrick McBride photo.

GM: Is “The Long Way Home” for your daddy? Because you sing “a cavalcade of strangers came to tear your world apart.”
RC: No, no. It’s more about me and a couple of other people I know who suffered a lot of destruction and then came back around to come home. At the same time, it’s about coming home to yourself. We take a lot of detours in our life when we’re young. We create a lot of escape routes for ourselves, just to come back home in the end. When one of the guys in my band heard that, he said, “Man, we all do that, don’t we? We all take the long way back to ourselves.”

GM: Who are you referring to when you sing in “World Of Strange Design”: “We talk about your drinking but not about your thirst.” I love that line.
RC: I’m talking about a lot of people. God bless ’em, I know a lot of alcoholics, mostly people who are in recovery, but who were alcoholics. That line is a Scottish aphorism. It’s paraphrased, and I think the real version is, “You ask me about my drinking, but you don’t ask me about my thirst.” I just love that. The Scots are so melancholy. It got me thinking about all of the great Southerners who drank themselves to death.

GM: Even the title, “World Of Strange Design,” is rather Gothic and mysterious.
RC: Yeah, there’s a certain madness working in that song, a particular kind of distinctly Southern oddity ...

GM: ... like a demented old Southern woman looking out at the world through the dust-covered windows of her mansion that’s gone to disrepair. You’re tapped into that inherent brand of Southern insanity that lies dormant under the surface but is always there.
RC: I let it take me, yeah [laughs].

GM: “Night School” has that gorgeous orchestral arrangement. That’s John, isn’t it?
RC: Totally. He’s a talented man. He wrote the music, and I wrote the lyrics; that’s how it was divided. But, of course, there were suggestions we gave each other. “Night School” was, in fact, the only song that I gave him a complete finished lyric. The other songs I either had a partial lyric, or he gave me the music and said, “Can you do something with this?” It’s such a sad song. I knew he had wanted to write something orchestral, and it seemed a good match.

GM: You seem to fall in love with tremendously creative and talented people. I gotta tell you, your ex-husband, Rodney Crowell, is one of my all-time favorites. I’ve always considered him the country Paul McCartney.
RC: That’s a great thing to say. He’d love that.

GM: That’s because he’s one of those post-rock ’n’ roll country greats. Marty Stuart is another. There’s such a divide between pre-rock and post-rock country singer-songwriters. I can only imagine what Hank Williams might’ve done had he not died in 1953. And I love how your ex-husband collaborated with your husband on “When The Master Calls The Roll.” Wasn’t that song written, though, for Emmylou Harris?
RC: Actually, they wrote a different song together for Emmy but used that same melody. Rodney had originally written a complete set of different lyrics. I had always loved what they did on that song for her, but she didn’t take it, so I asked Rodney if he would be willing to rewrite it for me as a Civil War ballad. And he did. John and I had wanted something in the tradition of the Celtic ballad, or Appalachian ballad, with a long narrative, and a heartbreaking end. It was so satisfying to do that song, especially since two of my ancestors fought in the Civil War — one on each side! There was a William Cash who fought for the Confederacy, and a William Cash who fought for the Union.

GM: That’s amazing. You must’ve freaked out when you researched it and saw the documentation that they were both, indeed, your ancestors.
RC: I did. Oh, my god, it was such a stunning revelation when I finally saw proof. And it’s the perfect metaphor, too, right? You’ll notice I never really say if the protagonist of the song is Confederate or Union, because Virginia actually went both ways.

GM: Incredible. Let’s get to your beginnings, if we may. Were you not taught guitar when your dad took you on the road, practically as a child, when Carl Perkins was in the Johnny Cash touring road show with some of The Carter Family? So you learned guitar from masters like Perkins and the Carters?
RC: Not some of the Carter Family, but THE Carter Family, yeah. Maybelle [1909-1978], Helen [1927-1998], Anita [1933-1999] and June [1929-2003] were all on the road with him. And they all would show me how to play chords on the guitar. Even Carl showed me a few things, but [laughs] he couldn’t really be bothered to teach an 18-year-old girl how to play guitar. But he did show me a few things.

GM: I can’t even begin to understand or comprehend the wellspring of creativity that one human can house. You’ve written books, you’ve written songs, you play some beautiful guitar and you sing like an angel. It’s no fair.
RC: You’re so sweet. Where are you in Pennsylvania?

GM: An hour north of Philadelphia.
RC: We were in Philly the day after Thanksgiving for a WXPN show. We could have done this in person.

GM: Don’t tease me. But I do find it fascinating that you go and make your all-time career album at this particular juncture of your career.
RC: Oh, from your mouth to God’s ears. Y’know, I, uh, sure hope so. I feel like it, but I’m a little afraid to say that, and I feel incredibly grateful that I’m still doing good work at my age and that I’m still excited about it. I mean, even just that — to still get so excited about it all — is such a gift.

GM: Would you consider “The River & The Thread” the third of a trilogy?
RC: I thought that when we were making it, actually. I remember saying to John, “Y’know, this could be the third part of a trilogy with ‘Black Cadillac’ laying out that map of mourning and ‘The List’ about receiving something instead of losing something, receiving it with joy and claiming it. Then, this record is where all the parts come together — not just loss, but joy, acceptance and exploration.” It reconnected all the dots from my own past, both musical, ancestral and in every way imaginable. Also for my children. They’re part of this, too.

GM: I remember thinking back in the day, “Man, that Rosanne Cash is always pregnant!”
RC: [Laughing.] I was, wasn’t I?

GM: I marvel at how you maintained such an A-list career without even flinching at the incessant demands of motherhood. Mere mortals aren’t supposed to be able to do that.
RC: Well, my career has had its peaks and valleys, to be perfectly truthful. There were times when I was really in a slump. There were other times when I lost my voice completely. But I’ve always wanted to work. I never felt like giving up. I love what I do so much that there were times I would think, “Even if I’m doing it just for myself and nobody hears it, I’ve got to keep doing it.”

GM: I know that you consider yourself primarily a songwriter. No disrespect intended, but I’ve always considered you a vocalist above all else. You have the most beautiful, sultry, smoky, swampy, sexy voice.
RC: [Laughs.] Lotta S’s there! I do consider myself a songwriter first and foremost, yeah. John is so good at recording my voice, and he takes so much care with that. He really values it — sometimes even more than I value it — which is great, because he keeps putting it front and center. If I ever have to stop singing, I can always write songs. I have always looked at composing as a really noble profession. I have always wanted to be a great songwriter so badly.

GM: The thought of you having to stop singing is a sad thought, because we’ve already lost two great voices recently. Joni Mitchell hardly sings anymore. Linda Ronstadt cannot sing anymore.
RC: I know. That broke my heart.

GM: So for you to be able to sing and still sound so good at 58 is testament to, uh, well, I guess you never got too caught up in drinking and drugging, because those who do seem to lose it late in life.
RC: No, I didn’t inherit that gene. Well, I mean, hey, when I was in my 20s — hell, it was the music business, and it was the ’80s. Say no more. We all did. But I never had that thing where I was addicted or even that it ever was front and center in my life. I was lucky in that way, I guess. A lot of people I loved fell by the wayside. There’s more than our fair share in the music business, but that never appealed to me.

Rosanne Cash Columbia publicity photo

Rosanne Cash is grateful she dodged the demons of drugs and alcohol. “When I was in my 20s — hell, it was the music business, and it was the ’80s. Say no more. But I never had that thing where I was addicted or even that it was ever front and center in my life. I was lucky in that way, I guess. A lot of people I loved fell by the wayside,” she said.

GM: I seem to remember reading an interview with Marshall Grant who said his greatest regret was not being able to keep Johnny Cash off drugs.
RC: Yes, it tortured him. But it was impossible. Nobody can keep anybody else off drugs. And he just didn’t understand that. He’s from a different generation. He thought it was his job. He loved him so much. It tortured him until the very end of his life.

GM: Wasn’t Marshall credited for putting the “boom chicka boom” in Johnny’s sound?
RC: Pretty much! He wasn’t much of a bass player, and he just slapped it. Yeah! He’s the boom in the chicka-boom.

GM: Is it true that your dad went blind toward the end of his life and you would read to him?
RC: He was nearly blind, yeah. He certainly couldn’t read anymore. I would read to him. I think that’s time we both treasured. I’d read the Bible to him. He liked that. And I’d read to him over the phone, too. He liked that, as well. Once, though, when I didn’t have a Bible handy, I asked him if he’d like to hear some Shakespeare, and he said, “I’ll wait.”

GM: I never realized how religious your dad was. I recently finished listening to all 63 CDs of his “Complete Columbia Album Collection” ( I had no idea. So many of his early records were all about Jesus.
RC: Yeah, he was. He was raised a Baptist and had a powerful faith his whole life. But, y’know, he housed a mysticism about it, too. He certainly wasn’t a church-goer. He was more of a scholar. He read ancient text. His faith was very ecumenical. And he didn’t judge other people’s faith.

GM: That’s a 180 from how I’ve always perceived him — as a country rebel, an outlaw, even. I tend to forget or gloss over his profound connection to God.
RC: Well, he was just as much a sinner as he was a saint.

GM: Would you concur that it might be easier to be the daughter of a legend rather than the son of one?
RC: Yeah, I think so. Particularly for men of his generation, who put so much into having a son to be like them or wear that mantle. What men of adoration gave their daughters just seems to be more tender and accepting in a wait-and-see-what-you-do kind of way. Put it this way: I’m glad I’m a woman [laughs].

GM: Who are you listening to right now? Anyone out there coming up who strikes your fancy?
RC: The Civil Wars, Alabama Shakes and St. Paul & The Broken Bones who are a kinda post-modern blues band, just fantastic. And I still adore Billy Bragg and Joe Henry. Both of their current records are great.

GM: I read your “Long Way Home” essay in the Oxford-American. Your prose style is so immediate and grabbing. It was like sitting down with you and discussing your life. You’re such a wonderfully talented writer, both song-wise and prose-wise. I have to get your “Composed” memoir. Are you going to take “The River & The Thread” on the road?
RC: Yeah, but not for weeks on end, because I have a 14-year-old. Still, there are some strategic strikes planned, including some dates down South, to really celebrate this. And I’m doing this whole thing with Universal TV.

GM: How much of that daughter-of-a-legend thing did you really have to wrestle with? Were you lucky enough to escape unscathed?
RC: No, it didn’t escape me completely. I don’t think it would escape anyone who goes into the same field as their very successful parent. When you’re in your 20s, you try to figure out exactly who you are. You try to figure out exactly what you are that’s not them, and, of course, what you are that is them, and how to manage that gracefully. It’s tough. But I think that’s a developmental process. Everyone in their 20s must go through that. GM