Saturday, February 1, 2014

Road Maps Home: Rosanne Cash's The River & The Thread

Five years ago, Rosanne Cash released an album called The List (Blue Note). It was a collection of songs that her father, Johnny Cash, considered standards in the Americana songbook. It was and remains an important musical connection to her past. With the release of The River & The Thread, (Blue Note) Cash has extended the reach of her father’s favourite songs by writing her own “list” and the results are nothing short of superb.

The River & The Thread weaves its way through the American south like the Mississippi river. To me, it’s a collection of short stories set to music with the insightful assistance of Cash’s husband and musical partner, John Levanthal. The pair has written and produced a beautiful, unadorned album that is more than just a traveller’s diary. It’s a geographic and spiritual road map. The record opens with the philosophical “A Feather’s not a Bird,” a slightly ambiguous song about the importance of change and being open to it. She sings, “a feather’s not a bird, the rain is not the sea, but the river runs through me.” Perhaps she’s taking on the role of a spiritual conduit of American history? The record, or journey, continues as Cash tells the story of a woman who continues to work the land in spite of impending floods every year ("The Sunken Lands").

“Etta’s Tune”, which is an older song reimagined for this album, is a personal story about a “lost” friend of Cash’s “a mile or two from Memphis who finally makes it home.” But the song is as much about Cash as it is about Etta. In the southern music issue of Oxford American magazine (December 2013) Cash writes about the importance of her hometown of Memphis, and what it means to her identity. Born there in what she describes as a “muggy evening in late May, 1955,” Cash’s earliest years “got imprinted on my soul, and that made me feel that a part of me was Southern, even though I spent the next 15 years in California.” If the genre of Americana can be defined as a mix of blues, country, folk and rock 'n' roll, then “Modern Blue” is its best exponent. Lyrically, it’s about the malaise of the human condition, “a big wide world with a million shades of modern blue.” It’s one of the strongest tracks on the record. Another song that shows off her maturity as a songwriter is the intimacy shared on “Night School,” a song that could make one blush.

Rosanne Cash & Johnny Cash (photo by Annie Liebovitz)

“50,000 Watts of Common Prayer,” co-written with Leventhal, is really about her mother. She writes in Oxford American that it covers the period when Johnny had yet to have a hit in music and had to make do working in a furniture store in Memphis. It’s a song that captures the ebb and flow of a hard life, with “a light on Sunday,” albeit a powerful one. But the one song that unifies the themes of returning to one’s roots is “The Long Way Home.” This could also be considered the climax of a book, as it were. Written in the third person, Cash makes a powerful statement about herself, “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.” Cash relates this part of her story in a short profile on CBS Sunday Morning.

The River & The Thread finds Rosanne Cash in a very good place in her life, long removed from the shadow of her famous father. She’s been able to write and perform songs that reflect her feelings that are romantic without being sentimental. The music is beautifully produced, unadorned and crisp to the ear. It’s a record of heartfelt, intelligent compositions with accessible metaphors. What it proves is that Rosanne Cash is one of the finest voices in American music.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra.

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