Rosanne Cash Rediscovers Her Roots With 'The River & The Thread'

Rosanne cash

Clay Patrick McBride

Rosanne Cash admits that when she looks back at her classic work from the 1980s, she feels somewhat removed from the artist that was topping the chart with works like "Seven Year Ache" and "Blue Moon With Heartache" during her years with Columbia Records.

"It's like listening to my daughter," she tells Billboard. "I think when I was close to it a few years after making those records, I was very critical of myself, thinking 'I could have done better.' I look back now, and I have a fondness for that girl. She's younger than some of my daughters, but it's me. I really didn't know what I was doing, but that innocence and longing to be good really moves me now."

Cash returns with her first album of original material since 2006 -- "The River & The Thread," due in stores January 14. She says that the inspiration for many of the songs on the album came about while re-discovering her roots in the mid-south. 

"The List [a covers album derived from a list of songs that her father told her she needed to be familiar with] came out in 2010, and it was very successful. It was something I am really proud of. I worked a lot around that record, and then I got involved with the Arkansas State University for the restoration of my dad's boyhood home. They had bought it, and asked if the family would be a part of the restoration project. That was the first thing around my dad that I said I wanted to be a part of because that's something my dad would have loved." 

That process sent the singer-songwriter to some familiar ground. "I started taking a lot of trips down south to Arkansas and Memphis, and also to visit friends in Alabama. These songs started forming, and they are all songs about the south. It was a really rich and satisfying experience to take all these trips to the south, and reconnect to people I knew, and places I've known, and find some new things too."

The first song that Cash and husband John Leventhal wrote for the record, "Etta's Tune," definitely touches on her roots. "When I was at the first festival / fund raiser at Arkansas State, Marshall Grant died. He was my dad's bass player in the original Tennessee Two. He was also like a surrogate dad to me after my dad died. He was married to Etta for 65 years, and they had known me my whole life. They had been a part of my life forever. Marshall was the third person to hold me after I was born. So, that was a big loss. It's an emotional song, and all true. I don't think I've ever written a song that was so true in all the details of their lives."

In spending quite a bit of time in the Delta region, Cash also connected with a little bit of regional and musical history – including one of the most infamous bridges in music history.

"That was such a special day. We started in Memphis, and drove to Oxford. Later we went from Greenwood to Money Road, and we visited Robert Johnson's grave. Then, we went on to Money, Mississippi, where young Emmett Till was murdered, and the Civil Rights movement began. Right around the corner from Money was the Tallahatchie Bridge," a landmark made famous by Bobbie Gentry's 1967 smash hit, "Ode To Billie Joe." Cash said that was a moment that she will not soon forget. "After hearing that song for years, and singing it in concert myself, I thought it would be this huge structure, and it was just this little empty bridge. Nobody was on it. Nobody drove on it. We must have stayed on the bridge for a half an hour and we saw one car. It was a very moving experience. We even got our guitars out and sat on the bridge."

One track on the set that Cash is particularly proud of is "When The Master Calls The Roll." She co-wrote it with two of her most frequent collaborators over the years.

"I've never written a song that happened this way," she states. "First of all, I wrote it with my husband John, and my ex-husband Rodney Crowell. So, that in itself was an amazing gift to write with both of them. It was full circle, and great healing. My son is fourteen, and was doing a project on the Civil War. I said 'You know you have Cash ancestors on both sides. We have Confederate ancestors, as well as Union. I went on the Civil War database to show him, and up popped this photo of William Cash – who was a Union soldier. It was chilling. We wrote the lyrics, and I asked Rodney if he wanted to write a Civil War ballad, and he said sure. I found another Cash, Mary Ann, and I put them together for this song. It's in the tradition of an Appalachian or Celtic ballad about war that have a heartbreaking end. It was also like writing a novel. I wasn't quite sure what was going to happen with the characters until we wrote it. It broke my heart that he was going to die." 

Cash said that sometimes the writing process sometimes surprises even the writer. "I think it's my favorite part of songwriting. If you knew what you were going to write, it would be boring and kind of lifeless. To start with an inspiration, see where it takes you, and trust the process, that's incredibly satisfying."