Rosanne Cash's Southern Music
BY KRISTI YORK WOOTEN
FOR THE ECONOMIST
FOR her latest muse, Rosanne Cash returns to the familiar world of the American South, where the ghosts of William Faulkner and Robert Johnson loom large. A Grammy-winning singer and the eldest daughter of Johnny Cash, she lives in Manhattan. But on her landmark new album, “The River and the Thread”, she embraces her Memphis birthright to deliver a mixture of music and metaphor that explores the Southern grooves of her native city and the Mississippi river that runs through it.
Ms Cash was raised in California and moved to New York City in 1991. She speaks lovingly of the work of Southern writers and of the early-20th-century blues music that influenced her father’s country songs—and to some extent her own blend of country, rock, folk and pop.
“Both my parents were Southerners, two of my daughters still live in the South, my sister lives in the South,” Ms Cash says. “I’ve been in New York longer than I’ve been in any place. But I’m a Southerner by ancestry and by connection, if not by daily life.”
The idea for “The River and the Thread” developed after a series of trips to the region, through the heart of the Mississippi Delta and along the Natchez Trace Parkway. Ms Cash and her husband and co-writer, John Leventhal, visited the haunts of Southern literary greats and the porches where the blues began. They saw the spot in Money, Mississippi where Emmett Till was killed in 1955 after wolf-whistling a white woman; the Tallahatchie river where Billie Joe McAllister jumped to his death in Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 ode; and Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where Aretha Franklin recorded her first top-ten single.
“You have to wonder why there’s so much greatness and depth and beauty and richness and strangeness that comes from the South,” she says. “The literature, the music. Everything that came from the blues, slave songs and rooted Southern music including modern country and rockabilly and R&B. It’s like the centre of our musical soul.”
Ms Cash has filled “The River and the Thread” with that soul, and with related themes of toil and longing. “Tell Heaven” is a secular gospel song with a shout-out to Roebuck “Pops” Staples, who began writing music on a Mississippi cotton plantation in the 1930s. And “The Sunken Lands”, which reflects on Johnny Cash’s upbringing near the flood plains of the Mississippi river, was written after Ms Cash had worked on a project to restore his boyhood home in Dyess, Arkansas as a music-heritage site. “To go there now and see how he lived, how hard the work was in the fields and how far his house was from the little town,” she says. “We can’t even imagine how difficult that life was.”
Though lushly produced “The River and the Thread” never loses an authentically gritty Southern-ness. A fresh, yet self-reverential mix of blues, rock and country is deftly woven into it. The quarter-time pop of “Seven Year Ache”, a song Ms Cash released in 1981, re-emerges in “Modern Blue”. “A Feather’s Not a Bird” begins with a slide-guitar riff that moseys into harmony-laden backing vocals like 1990’s “What We Really Want”. And the delicately plucked ballad “Night School” is a sad and sweet reverie reminiscent of 1993’s “Sleeping in Paris”.
“We wanted to nod to all of those different branches of Southern music without doing a complete imitation,” Ms Cash says. “It’s not like we don’t know the traditions we’re working in. We know them very, very well and respect them deeply.”
PHOTO BY CLAY PATRICK MCBRIDE. COURTESY OF BLUE NOTE RECORDS.