Rosanne Cash Traces Her Roots in The River & the Thread

New Album Explores Stories of the Deep South

Just about any time the topic of American roots music is discussed, Rosanne Cash is an active participant in the conversation. And that goes for discussing at any forum and in any medium.

Just last year the singer-songwriter wrote a contribution to The Oxford American, was a keynote interviewee at the Americana Music Conference, a commentator in a PBS documentary about Americana and an artist-in-residence at the Library of Congress.

There’s a reason why Cash is so often called upon to share her thoughts on rooted music making.

“Well, I really, really care about it,” she offers, reclining on a hotel loveseat during day one of a Nashville press tour. “I think if everyone went to the Delta and Appalachia, you would see the roots — no pun intended — of who we are as Americans. It’s so important to who we are. It’s like being Irish and not knowing about Celtic music. You have to know.”

Cash has taken her own advice. She and her husband and collaborator John Leventhal set out from their longtime home base in New York City to document the earthy textures and testaments of the Deep South with which her father, Johnny Cash, was so identified. His daughter is a self-aware insider-outsider, and she’s spun observation, sensation and reflection into her deeply felt new album The River & the Thread.

CMT Edge: There’s a humid, swampy undertow to the feel of this album, blended with your sophisticated sensibilities and sumptuous arrangements. And that only makes sense. If it sounded primitive, it wouldn’t sound like you.

Cash: Yeah. It wouldn’t have been me, and that would have been contrived. John’s arrangements are pretty sophisticated. But our instincts for Southern music are so respectful and so heartfelt, really, that we wanted to not do a pastiche … but just nod to those forms.

Also, the lyrics lent themselves to this, and inspiration for the songs was where we went in the South. The geographical part of it was inspiring all on its own. It was pretty organic. I hate to use that word, because everybody uses that word, but it was.

Were you getting into particular musical styles roots in particular places?

Yeah. John in particular was really into the country-pop thing from the ’60s. You know, like Bobbie Gentry, Dusty Springfield and Tony Joe White. And the Muscle Shoals connection, all of that. We were really into that.

And also we took a lot of drives through the Delta, so that kind of swampy, Delta stuff was really stuck in our heads, too.

I was going to ask if you’d been listening to Bobbie Gentry — and not only because you reference the Tallahatchie Bridge that she famously sang about. Also because she was a sharp storyteller of Southern-grounded narratives, and there was a lot of finesse to her arrangements.

I’ve been singing [Gentry's] “Ode to Billie Joe” in concert for a few years now, so the Tallahatchie Bridge was looming large for us. [When we visited Mississippi] I thought it would be this grand structure, you know? It’s this little bridge. Empty. We sat on the bridge for half an hour, with our guitars out half the time, which was very pretentious of us. (laughs)

So it’s a real place, around the corner from where Emmitt Till was murdered, and it’s right down the road from where Robert Johnson is buried. So it was this vortex of music and revolution.

You really got into detailed, character-driven storytelling with these songs, which isn’t something you’ve been known for.

John and I talked a lot about that. My instinct is to go into some degree of navel gazing. (laughs) And he kept saying, “You have to write about other characters. Bring more characters in. This can’t just be about your experience.” But, of course, my experience is threaded through all of it.

“When the Master Calls the Roll” being the most third-person song [on the album] — I mean, even 200 years away from it — still it’s [about] my ancestor. William Cash was my ancestor.

You’re not offering some abstract notion of that time.

My son was doing a project on the Civil War, and I went on the Civil War database, and there was a picture of William Cash. It was pretty incredible. I had ancestors who were both Union soldiers and Confederate soldiers. How’s that for a metaphor?

A line you came upon in your travels and worked into the album was “learning to love the thread.” I took that to be both literal description and metaphor.

That’s exactly right. My friend Natalie Chanin has the company called Alabama Chanin. They hand-stitch these beautiful clothes in Florence, Ala. … So I went down to her studio and she taught me to sew. And she said that. She said, “You have to love the thread.” It just chilled me. And then driving through Mississippi and Tennessee and Arkansas after that, [I was] thinking about that line over and over and what it really meant.

You mentioned in another interview that you now have a sewing circle.

I do.

That’s an interesting, tangible tie-in to the impulse to revive lost, hand-crafted arts. You could almost call it Americana as a way of life.

That’s a great way to put it.

What about that resonated with you?

Well, just what you said. To get in touch with the real things in your life. Also, as a side note, I’m around men all the time. In the studio and on the road, whenever I work, it’s generally [with] 99 percent men. This sewing circle is all women, and we talk about things that aren’t gear or sports. (laughs) That is a powerful connection, and also when you’re using your hands like that, it becomes very meditative.

A lot of the attention given to your career has focused on that relatively brief period when you felt the need to rebel musically and establish yourself as your own, non-Southern artist and woman. But it seems like you’ve been finding it creatively fertile to draw on your roots for a long time. You recorded your dad’s song “Tennessee Flat Top Box” a quarter-century ago. What’s different about writing about your roots in this way?

Well, I wasn’t dabbling with this record. I wasn’t saying, “One from column A, and one from column B.” This was more completing something that maybe I’d started, like you said, with “Tennessee Flat Top Box” 25 years ago. I never thought about it in that way.

I had to take a lot of excursions and left turns, escape routes, on the way from there to here. And that’s good because you find out what’s you, what’s not you, what you love, what you don’t love, what you’re connected to, where the thread is.

And I’m not Southern. I mean, I didn’t grow up in the South, so in that way I’m not Southern. But I am, because I was born in Memphis. Both my parents are Southern. That was kind of a subtle part of the thread that took me a long time to grasp. At this point in your life, you start coming home to yourself in all the ways. Not just a single way, but in all the ways. …I feel more whole because of that. I feel more whole because of this record.