Rosanne Cash certainly knows how to write her own story — in addition to her extensive repertoire of confessional and emotionally revealing songwriting, the daughter of Johnny Cash has also penned a memoir and contributed many essays to publications about her personal journeys. However, with the release of her new album, “The River & the Thread,” Cash manages to navigate an enchanting and difficult method: Exploring her own history via the tales of other characters.
The album, which was composed and written completely in conjunction with her husband, John Leventhal, is her first set of originals since 2006. (Her critically acclaimed 2009 collection, “The List,” featured her interpretations of classic country covers culled from a list her famous father made for her years ago.)
“I think it was an important record to us, but my day job is as a songwriter,” she explains. “So it was almost disconcerting to see how successful “The List” was. It was great, but I really longed to get back to songwriting.”
The genesis for the album actually came via a request to dig into Cash’s dad’s history. Although she receives “hundreds of requests every year” for projects involving her family tree (“I’m just not interested … it’s not my job to further my dad’s status or legend or fame,” she says), one in particular unexpectedly caught her attention.
“Arkansas State University approached me and said they wanted to purchase my dad’s boyhood home, which was a DPA Project cottage, part of The New Deal. Five hundred cottages were built and made into a colony, where the Cash family received a cottage and 40 acres and a mule,” she explains. “It was the first time that anyone had thought of this. The house had been empty for a long time and then a family had been living in it. It was very dilapidated and was just about to the ground.
“And I said, ‘Yes, that’s something I would be interested in.’ This is real, this is authentic, it’s really to do with my dad’s roots — it’s not about burnishing his legend. The thing that interested me about this is it’s part of my own ancestry. I was as interested in doing it for my dad — who was so connected and proud of where he came from and how he grew up — as I was for doing it for my children, because it’s part of their history. I’m a New Yorker for 23 years and yet one generation back, we were cotton farmers. That’s deep, that’s very moving and I wanted to stay connected to that.”
“So I started taking a lot of trips to Arkansas to see the house … and it was very inspiring. Our hearts kind of cracked open to the area, to the story and to the characters we reconnected with.”
As they became more involved with the project, Cash and Leventhal found themselves making trips around the South, both to return to Cash’s birthplace (Tennessee) and areas they hadn’t previously explored in depth before. From there, the initial seeds of what would be a songwriting journey began.
“The album is coming from a deeper place than just our taking trips down South. But it all sort of came together in a specific period of time,” explains Leventhal. “There was this one trip we took that was really moving to both of us. I grew up in New York, but I was aware at a young age, probably originally because Bob Dylan sang a song called ‘Highway 61’ … I was like, ‘Where is this Highway 61? What is Highway 61?’ When I was 13 I thought it was mystical. And then as I grew to love all this music — as we both grew to love all this music — we realized it was an extraordinary thoroughfare that basically goes from Memphis to New Orleans. And the tributaries off that road are amazing and deep and resonant, as far as great music comes from.
“So, we did take this one trip down Highway 61 — a five day trip from Memphis to New Orleans, and we ended up doing a gig in New Orleans. And it was a really — I hate to use this word — but it was kind of a transformative experience.”
Inspired, the two began to write, finding themselves centering on stories from other people’s past. “The first song we wrote was called ‘Etta’s Tune’ — it was about Marshall and Etta Grant; Marshall was the original bass player in the Tennessee Two with my dad,” Cash notes. “And on that first trip to Arkansas, when we went down for the fundraiser for the boyhood home project, he came to rehearsal that day for the concert that night and he played his big bass guitar, and he had a brain aneurysm that night. So I stayed a few days with Etta, his wife of 65 years, and she said to me that every morning of their lives, they woke up and said to each other, ‘What’s the temperature darling?’ And I told John, that’s such a sweet way to start the day.’ And he said, ‘It’s also the first line of a song.'”
“That was really the moment when I think I kind of came to this idea, maybe just to step ahead of Rose, when I said, ‘There’s something about all this, that’s so extraordinary — we could write a lot of songs about this,'” Leventhal adds. “Not from a mercenary point of view, but just like — it was inspiring. The whole history, the weight of it, the generations of it all, felt really compelling to us. “
Although it explores other people’s stories, the album truly weaves in and out of Cash’s history — not only tying together characters from her Southern roots (one song is even about her grandmother, Carrie Cash), but even delving indirectly into her present. It not only features her husband, it also has contributions from Cash’s ex-husband, fellow musician Rodney Crowell, with whom she has three daughters and a now-friendly relationship with.
“I called Rodney and said, ‘Would you be interested in writing a Civil War ballad with me?'” Cash explains of her ex’s contribution. “And he said, ‘I can do that.'”
“It took about three months … and it ended up working so seamlessly with John’s melody.”
Overall, it’s hard to argue that Cash has hit a home run in combining all of her individual writing talents with regards to her newest set. “At this point in my life, I think the “sell-by date” has gone by, about me writing confessional songs about my feelings, I mean I would really have to up the game as a literate songwriter to keep doing that,” she smiles. “Not to say that it’s over! … But we really wanted to keep the focus out of our inner lives on this record and on third person narratives and characters. And these places.”
“There’s a really strong sense of place in this record. And going to a town where you have a connection is like time travel. So there’s geographic travel on this record, and there’s spiritual travel.”