“I went back to where I was born, and these songs started arriving in me,” says Rosanne Cash. “All these things happened that made me feel a deeper connection to the South than I ever had. We started finding these great stories, and the melodies that went with those experiences.”
With The River and the Thread, Cash has added the next chapter to a remarkable period of creativity. Her last two albums, Black Cadillac (2006) and The List (2009), were both nominated for Grammy Awards; The List—an exploration of essential songs as selected and given to Rosanne by her father, Johnny Cash—was also named Album of the Year by the Americana Music Association. In addition, her best-selling 2010 memoir, Composed, was described by the Chicago Tribune as “one of the best accounts of an American life you will likely ever read.”
Cash, who has charted 21 Top 40 country singles, including 11 Number Ones, wrote all of the new album’s songs with her longtime collaborator (and husband) John Leventhal, who also served as producer, arranger, and guitarist. Featuring a long list of guests—from young guns like John Paul White (The Civil Wars) and Derek Trucks to such legends as John Prine and Tony Joe White—The River and the Thread is a kaleidoscopic examination of the geographic, emotional, and historic landscape of the American South. The album’s unique sound, which draws from country, blues, gospel, and rock, reflects the soulful mix of music that traces its history to the region.
The literal journey toward The River and the Thread began when Arkansas State University contacted Cash about their interest in purchasing her father’s boyhood home in Dyess, Arkansas. A series of benefit concerts to get the project started featured artists like George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Dierks Bentley, Willie Nelson as well as The Civil Wars.
The River and the Thread draws from stories and characters across generations of the Cash family. “Sunken Lands” is named for the area where Johnny Cash grew up, and recounts the difficult life of his mother, Carrie. While the sparse, moody Southern pop of “The Long Way Home” draws on details from the lives of Rosanne and her family, she points out that “the sentiment is universal—most of us go a long way and try a lot of things before we come home to ourselves. To paraphrase Paul Theroux, ‘We go away to find the changes in ourselves. We go away to find our place in the world.’” “Tell Heaven” is an achingly beautiful meditation on longing and loneliness.
Rosanne Cash acknowledges that, even with fifteen albums and four books behind her, it was difficult to start writing songs again after spending several years immersed in the masterful compositions featured on The List. “You cannot keep that in your mind, except as an inspiration, a standard to aspire to,” she says. “To say, ‘I’m going to write a song as great as “Take These Chains”‘—you’re not! So the only way to not get dismantled by that is to stay connected to your own muse, and immerse yourself completely in what you’re doing so it can be as rich and authentic as it can possibly be. That’s all you can hope for.”
With The River and the Thread, she has risen to that challenge—and emerged with a beautiful and haunting album, one of the finest works in an extraordinary career.