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Rosanne Cash Probes the Strange Beauty of Southern Music
No stranger to ambitious exploration in music, Rosanne Cash sets the bar high on The River & The Thread. Scheduled to release Jan. 14 on Blue Note Records, it is that rarest of things in Country Music — a concept album, whose elements draw around the beacon of Southern culture.
“We wanted to nod in respect in the direction of some of those essential genres in Southern music, like the blues, some swampy stuff and Country/pop,” she explained, referencing herself and her husband, co-writer and guitarist John Leventhal, her co-writer on each track. (Rodney Crowell joined them as co-writer on “When the Master Calls the Roll.”) “We listened a lot to Bobbie Gentry. We borrowed from the way she used strings without sounding like we were copying. The way we managed that was just that these were all original songs. They came from real stories and real people I knew. For the Civil War ballads, I knew we were writing in a tradition, yet they were about my ancestors. So there was a great blend of tradition and the present.”
The endurance of tradition and the immediacy of the present pretty much define more than just the musical aspect of the American South. But Cash, whose lineage through her father Johnny Cash is among the noblest in Country Music, expresses this aesthetic most sensitively and emotionally through song. The fact that it’s been more than four years since her previous album suggests that the ingredients that comprise The River & The Country have been simmering for quite some time.
What makes Southern music unique?
The Mississippi Delta gave rise to so much American music. It was our greatest export: the blues, slave songs, gospel songs, what was called “race music,” what was called “hillbilly music,” which became Country Music. The Delta and Appalachia? Boom! You’ve got it all, except for jazz.
But it’s not only the music. It’s the revolution, the fact that the civil rights movement started there, and the kind of beauty and strangeness of the South. It’s a very particular mindset. You go to a place like Mississippi and you see Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Charley Patton, B. B. King, all these musicians — and you see William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. You go, “What happened here? What happened in the Delta that all of this came from here?”
How was the writing process different for The River & The Thread than it was for your previous projects?
It was like an overlay. We knew we were writing a record about the South, so the lyrics lent themselves to these stories. I don’t quite know how to articulate how it happens, because I think that in songwriting, if you can articulate how it happens, it’s not songwriting anymore — it’s something else. But we borrow and nod to a lot, even in the really orchestral song, “Night School,” which doesn’t come from either the blues or Appalachia. But it still has a place in this
Ultimately, I think it all came from love. We love the music of the South so much. John is really a Southern musicologist. He knows more about Southern music than I do. We could easily walk through the territory and feel at home.
You did a lot of research and traveled as part of your preparations for this album. You’ve been living for quite a while in New York. Could you have done The River & The Thread without leaving the city?
Of course not. I don’t think we would have been able to write this record had Arkansas State University not asked me get involved in the restoration of my dad’s boyhood home and had I not gone there to do that. After the first fundraising concert, Marshall Grant (bassist with Johnny Cash’s band, The Tennessee Three) died. Around the same time, I met my friend Natalie Chanin, in Florence, Ala.; she taught me how to sew. And I took my son to Sun Records for the first time, so he could see where his grandpa started his career. All of this happened at the same time. It was a perfect storm to give rise to a lot of songs.
One place you visited was the Tallahatchie Bridge, which Bobbie Gentry immortalized in “Ode to Billy Joe.”
I had been singing “Ode to Billy Jo” live for several years, so the Tallahatchie Bridge had taken on a kind of mythic importance in my mind. I thought it was this huge, grand structure. So John and I get down there, off of Money Road, and we go on this tiny, little bridge — and it’s the Tallahatchie Bridge! It’s very modest and unassuming. It was a bleak December day. There was not a soul around. One car came across the bridge in 30 minutes. John and I just parked and walked on it. We even got our guitars out in a very self-conscious way and sat on the bridge. That gave rise to the song “Money Road,” and the first line is, “I was dreaming about the Tallahatchie Bridge.” We found points of music and revolution in that pool of everything that was there: Robert Johnson’s grave, down Money Road to where (civil rights leader) Emmett Till was murdered, and around the corner is the Tallahatchie Bridge. And then further down the road is where Howlin’ Wolf sat on a porch and played his music.
I didn’t realize how close all those places are.
I didn’t either! You can’t believe how close they are!
What was Howlin’ Wolf’s place, Dockery Farm, like?
There aren’t any cotton plants anymore, but the mill is still there; they restored it. The main house is still there. The old area where the office was is still there. There are no tours set up, but people come, particularly Europeans, and the caretaker will show them around the farm. It’s quite amazing. My friend who’s restoring it, whose grandfather was Will Dockery, lives in New York City too.