On her beautiful and understated new album, Rosanne Cash takes us on a ride through the American South. She’s been along this road before, linked to it by family genealogy and musical heritage; and yet on The River & the Thread, she travels it as an outsider, seeing the landscape anew, capturing images through the refracted lens of dream and metaphor, reminiscence and fable. The River & the Thread is about returning to a place you hardly know yet have always known.
“A river runs through me,” she sings in the opening track “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” putting on a “pretty dress,” listening to the voices in her head and, eventually, harmonizing along with them, a subtle indication that the visions that follow will be personal. The conclusions she draws will be subject to the process of memory and recall.
This isn’t surprising — Cash’s mood has been reflective of late. 2006′s Black Cadillac unflinchingly confronted the realities of loss — of her mother Vivian, her stepmother June Carter Cash and, of course, her father, all within a two-year period — with a transcendence that spoke to a deeper understanding of life’s endings and legacies. She took on her father’s musical influences with 2009′s The List, picking selections from his personal top 100 and reconfiguring them in her own image. On Thread, she uses the restoration of Johnny’s boyhood home in Dyess, Arkansas, by the State University as an opportunity to revisit the land and mythologies which gave her birth, the soil from which she grew and soon departed.
Riding along with her musical collaborator, producer and husband John Leventhal, Cash’s travels take her to places that exist in song as much as on a map. Highway 61 may bisect the heartland of the blues, but it’s Bob Dylan’s joyous celebration of it, complete with siren-whistle, to which most of us non-southerners respond. The Tallahatchie Bridge is just another crossing over a river in the Mississippi Delta, forever to be associated with the fictional Billie Joe McAllister, though cold, hard truth emerges as you move just down the road apiece, to where the teenager Emmett Till was murdered in 1955, a martyr whose name would become a rallying cry in the Civil Rights struggle.
And, of course, there’s Memphis. Rosanne was born there — also in 1955 — living for the first couple of years in a small apartment on Tutwiler Street, while her father was first making his records and setting out on his iconic career. That backstory brings personal resonance to the album’s most affecting song, “Etta’s Tune.” “Etta” is Etta Grant, the wife of Marshall Grant, one half of Cash’s Tennessee Two, whose bedrock boom-chicka-boom rhythm on the bass anchored early Sun hits like “I Walk the Line” and “Cry Baby Cry.” The song’s portrait of domesticity is constructed from small details: “blankets on a hill,” asking the temperature each morning as if saying grace. “A mile or two from Memphis,” she sings in the chorus, describing a trail measured more in years than distance, “and I finally made it home.”
The album’s melodies and musical settings come mostly from Leventhal. The cross-genre weave of acoustic and tasteful electric guitars and keyboard paddings is neither country, as might be expected, or even traditional Americana; instrument choices are determined by song-at-hand, and they wear each chord change like a worn and softened T-shirt. You can feel the motion of Cash’s car as it drives past the vista of “The Sunken Lands,” a vignette of her grandmother, making her hardscrabble way; or the relatively rocked-up “Modern Blue,” which name-checks the great capitals of the world only to find its way back home. “50,000 Watts” turns on the AM radio to pull in the gospel station at the far end of the dial. “When the Master Calls the Roll,” written with Rodney Crowell, grapples with Cash’s discovery of her ancestor William Cash, who fought on the side of the North in the Civil War. The River & the Thread is a tour diary kept by someone who writes in impressions, finding within them her truths, revelations and healing comfort.