Rosanne Cash’s first album of original songs in eight years is an on-the-road record. Indeed, it’s a Highway 61 soundtrack, inspired by recent travels along that storied main drag of the South, plus many detours, with her husband and co-writer, the guitarist and producer John Leventhal.
The lyrics on The River & the Thread fittingly abound in road references. But the title—in a move that proves characteristic of Cash’s method here—adds further layers, through two other symbols of pathways that ribbon through landscapes and lives: River, for the coursing currents of history, geography, and culture that shape the South. And thread, for the more personal strands of genetics, memory, and even literal fabrics—cotton and clothes—that entangle Cash herself in that complicated place (as she wrote about wonderfully this fall in the Oxford American).
The road is a river; the road is a thread. The potency of the album, perhaps Cash’s finest since 1993’s The Wheel and likely to be one of the best countryish records of 2014, arises in large part from this dialectic between external circumstances and private meaning, which twists unpredictably through nearly every song.
It is also a matter of distance and perspective—that of an artist nearing 60 and of a woman (and, significantly for this collection, a mother, sister, daughter, and wife, as depicted in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine profile) who’s defined herself apart from her heritage. She often tried to snap those bonds as a younger woman, resisting both the culture she was born into in Memphis, Tenn., in 1955 and the pressures of being the daughter of one of the South’s most iconic sons, Johnny Cash, and stepdaughter of one of country music’s monumental dynasties, the Carter Family.
After her birth parents’ early split, Cash grew up in California, made her musical start in Europe, returned for a time to Nashville and now has lived for decades in New York. Through talent, will power, and unusually canny use of her connections, she established a career and a persona improbably self-sufficient for any child of a superstar. She was the most forward-looking of the “New Traditionalist” movement that bucked the country old guard in the 1980s (think of Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett, and Cash’s then-husband Rodney Crowell). Despite her Laurel-Canyon-gone-New-Wave look, defiant attitude and feminist intelligence, she earned 11 No. 1 country singles—astounding when you consider how tricky it is even today for comparably strong-minded, young, female voices such as Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark to get country-radio airplay.
Cash diverged from Nashville after her divorce from Crowell, while the industry was simultaneously retrenching with the Garth Brooks “New Country” era, and remade herself as a left-of-the-dial, introspective album artist: 1990’s Interiors remains a too-often-forgotten landmark, a country sequel to Joni Mitchell’s Blue (to which the new album’s fiercest track, “Modern Blue,” also pays homage).
She raised a multi-branched family, dealt with vocal polyps and serious brain surgery, and published a book of short stories and a deft 2010 memoir (which I discussed here). And it’s only in this last phase that she’s allowed family ties pride of place, with her 2006’s suite of mourning for her father, mother, and stepmother, Black Cadillac, as well as 2009’s acclaimed The List, comprised of a dozen covers from her dad’s roster of essential American standards.
The River & the Thread completes that cycle of retrospection. Its starting point was in trips south to help restore Johnny’s boyhood home—she dreams her way into those hard-scrabble days in the second song, “The Sunken Lands”—but its gaze also passes among destinations such as Robert Johnson’s purported grave and the fraught Tallahatchie Bridge from “Ode to Billy Joe,” plus tales spun from Cash’s own peripatetic life and unsettled imagination.
The album can claim a sure classic in “When the Master Calls the Roll,” a ballad about a woman who loses her husband in the Civil War that’s rooted in Cash family genealogy (ancestors fought on both sides of the conflict): It subtly parallels their severed marital union with the sundered national Union, as pulsing Appalachian fiddles and New Orleans funeral brass underscore a vision of reconciliation. At once fresh and eternal-feeling, the song is all the more poignant when you know it was composed together with not only current husband Leventhal but Cash’s ex-spouse Crowell. But its charge also supersedes any of that background—the first time I heard it, I had shivers by the second verse.