The River & the Thread sees Rosanne Cash fully immersed geographically and emotionally in her homeland, tracing a musical map to illuminate her journey. Drawing on a variety of musical forms rooted in the southern states, the album goes far beyond a conventional country record, meshing elements of blues, rock, country, and gospel into a soulful and believable melange. This collection of 11 songs penned by Cash and her husband, producer, arranger, and guitarist, John Leventhal, is unified by the common theme of travel as a lever for discovery and reflection. The catalyst for Cash’s travels came from a bid by Arkansas State University to restore her father Johnny’s boyhood home, which took her back south from her NYC abode via a series of benefit concerts.
“A feather’s not a bird/ The rain is not the sea/ A stone is not a mountain/ But a river runs through me,” Cash avows in the swamp shuffle opener, “A Feather’s Not a Bird”. The river rolls on to offer up a gentle stream of metaphors that course through the record. The thread, from the album title, is the connection between places and memories that allows Cash to weigh happiness, hope, and grief in equal measure. Musically, the record gleams like a delta in sunlight. Leventhal’s production is elegiac yet always economical, favoring nuance over repetition. The players are equipped to extend these songs but stick to the script in ways that ensure the songs themselves are the stars. The arrangements are particularly deft, with a great example being the way the guitar and keys provide the melodic responses to Cash’s vocal calls on the sparky “Modern Blue”.
As a writer, Roseanne Cash can call on an exemplary turn of phrase. “Well I’d like to have the ocean/ But I’d settle for the rain,” she declares in “World of Strange Design”, a song highlighted by some vivid slide guitar from Derek Trucks. The tenderest moments come when Cash gets truly personal. “Etta’s Tune” was written in honor of Marshall Grant, Johnny Cash’s bass player in Tennessee Two and a longstanding family friend, and Etta, his wife for some 65 years. Grant would have played the inaugural benefit show had he not been struck down by a brain aneurysm. The heartfelt lost-to-war ballad “When the Master Calls the Roll” is built around the truth that her forebearers had fought on both sides of the Civil War, with lyrics inspired by a photograph of William Cash from Massachusetts found in an online Civil War database.
By the time the album reaches its conclusion, we have arrived at “Money Road”, in the Mississippi hamlet where the young Emmett Till met his death, sparking the Civil Rights movement. Money is also close to Robert Johnson’s fabled crossroads and Bobbie Gentry’s Tallahatchie Bridge, scene of Billie Joe’s watery grave. Referencing facts and fiction seems an apt ending to Cash’s album, where the two are equal bedfellows. Vocally, Cash is in command throughout; her soft, subtle intonation allows for small but telling flexes in her delivery to accentuate a story, contributing to the grace and charm of the record. It’s a consummate piece of work, and an evocative way to honor both personal and public history.
Essential Tracks: “Etta’s Tune”, “Modern Blue”, and “When the Master Calls the Roll”