Rosanne Cash's Blue Note Debut Is Inspired By the Mississippi River, Memphis & Ghosts of the South

The story behind Rosanne Cash's first album on Blue Note, "The River & the Thread," due Jan. 14, begins in the summer of 2011, after she started traveling to Arkansas State University in Jonesboro to participate in the first of several concerts to raise money for the preservation of the home that her legendary father, Johnny, lived in as a child in Dyess. During that initial trip, Johnny Cash's first bassist and eventual road manager, Marshall Grant, died. His widow, Etta, told Rosanne they began each morning by asking each other, "What's the temperature, darling?"

Cash's husband and producer, John Leventhal, heard that and said, "That's a great first line for a song," Cash recalls, which led to the two of them writing "Etta's Tune."

"After that song, we started taking more intentional trips down South," says Cash, a resident of New York. "There was kind of a perfect storm of inspiration. "The River & the Thread" is my connection to the South -- the musical, the spiritual, the DNA through my parents."

The trips took the two to her birthplace, Memphis; to Florence, Ala., where the Muscle Shoals studios are located, and where she found a sewing buddy; and all along Highway 61, the north-south "Blues Highway" that cuts through western Mississippi. Soundtracks for their journeys were filled with the country, R&B and gospel that came out of Muscle Shoals and Memphis, along with the blues of Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf and Charley Patton; collectively they connected music, history and geography.

On the album, Cash sings often about Memphis -- "it has a mythic presence in my mind," she says -- and its landmarks (such as radio station WDIA, on "50,000 Watts"), as well as other communities along the Mississippi River. That element provided half the title.

While she was sewing with a friend, she got the other half. "She said, 'You have to love the thread,' and she wasn't speaking metaphorically," Cash recalls. "It sent a chill through me, and I got the whole picture. It's really my story."

"The River & the Thread"is the third part of a trilogy, Cash says. "Black Cadillac" focused on mourning and loss after the deaths of her father, mother Vivian Cash and stepmother June Carter Cash. "The List" celebrated her family's musical legacy.

Armed with a unifying theme, which Cash says "made it easy to contextualize," she and Leventhal recorded as they wrote, with Cash penning lyrics while he created melodic frameworks.

"Most of the time we're right in sync, though there were a few things where we went head-to-head," she says. "'The Long Way Home' -- he had to teach me how to sing that. I heard it completely different, and wanted to sing it in a way he didn't buy. One of the things John does best is he knows how to make the vocal really be in service of the song. That's really important to me."

For Blue Note, consensus on a single to promote the album is neither necessary nor solicited. The label is servicing the peppy rock tribute to Memphis, "Modern Blue," to commercial triple A radio. The Oxford American requested and received the haunting ballad "The Long Way Home" for a Southern music sampler, NPR has singled out the tender acoustic ­guitar- and mandolin-driven "Night School," and Southern magazine Garden and Gun streamed the swampy "A Feather's Not a Bird."

"Rosanne is an album artist and we feel noncommercial triple A is going to pick the three or four songs that really speak to them," Blue Note senior VP of marketing Zach Hochkeppel says. "We're embracing this. Our focus, whether it's NPR or New York Times Magazine, is where you can tell the story of the album, who can tell the story in total."

Cash, who limits her touring to be home with her 14-year-old son, has filled the two months prior to the album's release with more novel, one-off trips. She gave a speech in Scotch Plains, N.J., for the Literacy Volunteers of New Jersey gala. She dropped in at Apple's iTunes offices in northern California as her album's presales commenced and flew to Los Angeles a week before Thanksgiving to perform at Universal Music's Santa Monica offices and meet people with whom she'd be working. She followed that with a trip to Little Rock, Ark., to be honored at the Old State House Museum. This month she had a three-night residency at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where one night was dedicated to a performance of the new album in full.

As she describes them, these travels, including the ones that birthed "The River & the Thread," are unique learning experiences. The information she absorbs results in music she calls "worlds colliding."

"It's not just country," she says of the new album. "We wanted to nod to a lot of forms of Southern music. Not in a way where we ape it -- we wanted to show respect and find where I fit in."