Rosanne Cash’s last CD was called The List; an album of covers released in 2009 and drawn from a list given to her by her father of his one hundred essential country songs. The Man in Black intended his daughter to draw inspiration from the list, certainly, and perhaps to humble her a little as well. Judging by the fifteen songs she picked for The List, the full one hundred must be an awe-inspiring, humility-inducing trip through the history of American vernacular music. Consisting almost entirely of songs about loss, leaving, and separation, The List is a contemplation of the music of the twentieth century from Jimmy Rodgers to Harlan Howard to Bob Dylan with all kinds of stops in between.
Where The List was about leaving even when you don’t know where you’re headed, Rosanne Cash’s new CD, The River & The Thread, is about coming home even when you never been to place you’re arriving at. “A mile or two from Memphis/And I finally made it home,” she sings. To listen to this record is to hear how deeply Cash has absorbed the music of the American South and how far she has gone beyond her father’s list and into her own territory. These songs, while written with the list clutched firmly in one hand, come emphatically from her experience, not her father’s, while not diminishing his legacy a bit. She sings in a confident, mature, steady voice which is frank and beautiful simultaneously. She is unquestionably in charge of her material but makes the whole thing sound natural, if not easy, as if she conjured the music’s shadowy power with a snap of her fingers.
From the first time you hit ‘play’ you simply know this is one of those rare records that will continue to reward your close attention no matter how many times you replay it or how many years ago by. It is what you’re secretly hoping for every time you put on a new record—that Eureka! thrill that runs up your spine when you discover music of true resonance and depth. It is music that speaks to you alone and everyone together. Right away I started thinking of The Band or Love and Theft or West or The Mule Variations, albums I’ve been listening to for upwards of forty years, in some cases, with unabashed joy and continual rediscovery. The album blows all of Cash’s younger contemporaries—the Kacey Musgraves, the Ashley Monroes, and the Brandy Clarkes (sorry Brandy) of the world—out of the water.
Make no mistake; The River & The Thread is rooted as firmly in the past as The List, though far more subtly. The connections abound. The first few slide guitar notes of the opening song, ‘A Feather’s Not a Bird,’ sounding like Mississippi Fred McDowell, take you right back to the Delta. That song’s opening verses name check Memphis, Nashville, Florence (AL), and Arkansas, so we know right away what territory we’ll be covering, musically and spiritually. “It’s a hard road, but it fits your shoes/Son of rhythm, brother of the blues,” goes one song. Subsequent songs double back to Biloxi, Mobile, the King James River, Virginia, Mississippi and double back again to Memphis.
There are connections to Cash’s father and his Arkansas birthplace in ‘The Sunken Lands’—and connections that hark back to the Civil War in ‘When the Master Calls the Roll,’ a song The Band would be happy to claim, written with Cash’s ex-husband Rodney Crowell, another connection to the past. There are connections to earlier musical eras in her back-up singers—John Prine, Amy Helm (Levon’s daughter), Tony Joe White and Kris Kristofferson—and covers—Townes Van Zandt’s Two Girls (a strange song that would feel at home on John Wesley Harding) and Jesse Winchester’s Biloxi, two mostly neglected Southern songwriters of the 60s and 70s. ‘World of Strange Design’ could easily be a Blind Willie Johnson 78, all doomy religion and shadows with Derek Trucks on slide.
And although Cash and her husband, collaborator/producer/arranger John Leventhal, have lived in New York for over twenty years, they’re spiritually connected to the South in a deep way; each song possesses a personal, emotional experience as its basis. There is a great deal of nostalgic nonsense associated with the South and this record trades in that not a bit; Cash and Leventhal are unafraid to take on the gothic aspects of the South and its history.
I was dreaming of the Tallahatchie Bridge
A thousand miles from where we live
But the long line at the pearly gate
The keepers of our fate
None of them will congregate
Out on Money Road
— Money Road
Leventhal writes in the liner notes: “[W]e drove down Money Road and stopped at Robert Johnson’s grave. We went to the spot where the murder of young Emmett Till took place, which led to the birth of the modern Civil Rights movement. Around the corner was the Tallahatchie Bridge and we were in the vortex of music, tragedy and revolution. That kind of thing stays with you forever. You can leave, but you can’t go away.”
I can relate. I’ve been there: Money, Mississippi is indeed the navel of all America’s dirty little obsessions with race and sex. Emmett Till was murdered for supposedly flirting with a white girl after all. Sweltering in the heart of the Delta, Money still exudes a sullen evil even 60 years after the fact. To get there off the highway you cross the Tallahatchie River on the bridge of the same name. (The same Tallahatchie Bridge featured in Bobby Gentry’s ‘Ode to Billie Joe.’) There are historical markers designating the key landmarks of the crime and the trial. The town appears dead; nothing moves. The few residents glare at you from their porches as you drive by, resenting your intrusion. Sometimes, when you try to leave, they will block your rented Corolla with a couple of enormous sway-backed 70s land cruisers — one in front, one in back — and let you wait. You sit, idling and showing not the slightest trace of impatience, until they decide to let you pass. ‘Money Road’ captures that dark weirdness with an eyes-open accuracy. Cash and Leventhal are at their nakedly-honest best here, taking on the South’s dirtiest secrets in words and music that contain not a gram of romance. It is as strange and scary as anything off her father’s American Recordings, and a connection to her direct ancestry, something The Man himself would have been proud to have written.
But the single most important connection of all, the one essential to the success of “The River & The Thread,” is the personal connection between Cash and Leventhal. You can hear it in how Leventhal has written his music to connect on a nearly intuitive level to her words, her sensibility. (And it is definitely his music; he’s pretty much a one-man band, playing drum, bass, guitar, keyboards, mandolin, and celeste, only occasionally bringing in a guest musician.) It is the ineffable creative and intuitive connection between the two of them that underlies the entire record and gives it a mysterious coherence that is beyond musical. The result in an endlessly fascinating collaboration and is what will elevate this record to the status of a classic, one I’ll pull of the shelf with anticipation each time.