American South in Song: Rosanne Cash

Kerry Dexter's picture

The red clay hills of Georgia and Alabama, the back roads of the Appalachian Mountains, the Gulf Coast gumbo of New Orleans and Mobile, the piney wood hills of north Florida, the soul sounds of Memphis on the river, the mix of down home and hustle that is Nashville, the long lonely roads that wind through the Mississippi delta: the American south is a mix of history and mystery, isolation and connection, the familiar and the unknown.

That is a mix and a landscape that singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash thought she had left in her past more than two decades ago, when, leaving Nashville after a successful but less than conventional career in country music, she claimed New York as her home. In recent years, though, a series of events led her to travels through the south. Those travels led to songs. The songs became the album The River and The Thread.


American South in Song: Rosanne Cash


"When we started forming the idea for this record, it felt like it was going to be the third part of a trilogy -- with [her recording] Black Cadillac mapping out a territory of mourning and loss and then The List, celebrating my family's musical legacy...this record ties past and present together through all those people and places in the south I knew and thought I had left behind," she says.

Cash is the eldest daughter of Johnny Cash. His work in music, and his life story, have crossed the borders of rockabilly, folk, Americana, blues, gospel, and other sorts of music as well, and become the stuff of legend. Several years ago, Arkansas Heritage and Arkansas State University decided to restore Johnny Cash's boyhood home at Dyess, Arkansas. This drew Rosanne back to the south -- to the south of her father's early years, to the south of legend and myth, and to how all that plays into the south of today.  



With the stories and images and landscapes they encountered on their travels through the south, Cash and her musical partner and husband John Leventhal created an album that is at once about journey and stillness, about discovery and reflection, about specific landscapes and people and events, yet with room for listeners to go beyond those grounding images and add their own.

On their travels, Cash visited her friend Natalie Chanin in Florence, Alabama. Chanin is a master seamstress, and as she was teaching Cash about her work and threading a needle, she remarked "You have to learn to love the thread." Chanin wasn't speaking in metaphor, but it struck poet and songwriter Cash that way; it was an image and idea that stayed with her and eventually became a linchpin of the song which opens the album, called A Feather's Not a Bird. The gumbo soil that her father and grandfather and uncles worked in Arkansas, the lights of Nashville, other rites of travel, all show up in the song, with lyrics set to Leventhal's southern shuffle infused melody.  "There's never any highway when you're looking for the past," Cash sings.




The past turns up in the music, though. Etta's Tune, the song they wrote which began the direction of writing about the south, was sparked by a conversation with Marshall Grant, Johnny Cash's original bass player when he started out, and then after Grant's sudden death, by a talk with his widow. The blues rock sound of Modern Blue holds lyrics that references travel, distance, reflection, trust, and love; World of Strange Design carries both concrete and mythical images of southern ways and times; 50,000 Watts weaves gospel inflected ideas and melody with questions and stories and hope; Sunken Lands came from Cash thinking about her grandmother and the life she led, and weaves in details of a story her father often told of the day they first arrived to move in to the house in Dyess; Tell Heaven brings in the gospel side of the south and the story of burdens born and shared. Then there's Money Road.

In their travels in Mississippi, Cash and Leventhal came to Money Road, near Greenwood. It is a place where history, legend, myth, and music meet: enigmatic bluesman Robert Johnson died nearby in 1938 and is buried in a churchyard there; almost within walking distance of his grave is what remains of the Bryant Grocery, where in 1954 black teenager Emmett Till may have flirted with a white woman, and wound up murdered and with his body thrown in the Tallahatchie River because of it; the nearby bridge across that Tallahatchie River was the site of another enigma, the centerpiece of Bobbie Gentry's song Ode to Billie Joe, which was an unexpected hit in the 1960s and has remained enduringly fascinating -- and enduringly enigmatic. In Money Road, Cash sings:

I was dreaming about the deepest blue
But what you seek is seeking you
You can cross the bridge and carve your name
But the river stays the same
We left but we never went away
Out on Money Road
Out on Money Road
Out on Money Road
Out on Money Road


In a conversation with CBS Sunday Morning, Cash was reflecting on the words her friend had said about learning to love the thread as she and Leventhal made their way through Mississippi and back up to Dyess, which is about an hour or so drive north and west of Memphis  "...And I was thinking about that line all the way. And how all through our lives growing up we take these long excursions away from ourselves.These escape routes. We create these escapes and we push away the things the hardest that we end up embracing the closest later on. At least, I've found that to be true for myself, " Cash said. "So to come back to the south and to see it with open eyes and a full heart, it's been a powerful experience.

"And an album came out of it."



As Cash wrote for another song on the album, called The Long Way Home:

You thought you'd left it all behind
You thought you'd up and gone
But all you did was figure out
How to take the long way home...


Go take that journey with Rosanne Cash. Give The River and the Thread a listen, give it well more than one to let the words and melodies unfold their images and tell their stories of journeys through the south, travels of both landscape and imagination, music and myth.



Word has come that on 8 February 2015, Rosanne Cash won three Grammy awards for this project: Best Americana Album for The River & the Thread, Best American Roots Song and Best American Roots Performance for A Feather's Not A Bird. Though she has won many other awards across the years, including recognition from the Americana Music Association and the Smithsonian, it was 1986 when Cash last took home a Grammy.




Kerry Dexter is Music Editor at Wandering Educators. You may reach Kerry at music at wanderingeducators dot com.

You may find more of Kerry's work in National Geographic Traveler, Strings, Perceptive Travel, Journey to Scotland,and other places, as well as at her own site Music Road.

Photo Credit Clay Patrick McBride