In her new album, ‘The River and The Thread,’ Cash weaves tales from the past and present
“As much as my dad’s legacy is something I cherish, it’s a burden with a lot of moving parts”
Rosanne Cash is proud as hell of being Johnny Cash’s daughter. But when, halfway through a sold-out show at London’s Barbican, some twerp shouts out a request for “Ring of Fire,” she shoots him a look that would surely put the fear of God into even the Man In Black at his meanest.
“Do you go to your dad’s office and do his work?” she says.
“Yeah, it’s a little dispiriting when that happens,” she sighs later on when we get together to discuss her new album, “The River and the Thread.”
“You can’t help feeling a bit like ‘here I am, I’m doing my best work and yet…’ I’m sure that Jakob Dylan gets it too and Liza Minnelli and everybody else who’s second generation when people really loved their parents.
“As much as my dad’s legacy is something I cherish, it’s a burden with a lot of moving parts. My father is a screen for some people to project their own ideals, their own agendas on. And the craziest of them want to protect him from me, or from what they imagine I am. But I feel that it makes me work harder, that it really sparks my work ethic when that happens.”
She’s more than justified in thinking that she’s long since emerged from her dad’s shadow. Rosanne Cash has Grammy and Americana award nominations to her name as well as hit singles aplenty, an impressive career in prose writing and editing, including her best-selling memoir “Composed,” and a noble record of supporting good causes, such as The AIDS Project of St. Luke’s in New York City.
“The River and the Thread” is a thrillingly kaleidoscopic examination of the geographic, emotional and historic landscape of the American South, reflecting the country, blues, gospel and rock music that traces its history to the region.
It’s a record, says Cash, “that I feel ties past and present together through all those people and places in the South I knew and thought I had left behind.”
Paradoxically, it evolved out of a project involving her father — something she had assiduously avoided for many years.
“So many Johnny Cash projects come to me — books and movies and plays and records — that I say no to. That’s the work of other people. But Arkansas State University called me in 2008 and said they wanted to purchase my dad’s boyhood home in Dyess, Ark., and restore it very accurately. They asked if I wanted to be involved, and I said yes right away. It felt like something tangible and was instantly compelling to me.”
So Cash and her husband John Leventhal started taking trips to the South, initially to help organize fundraising efforts for the Dyess project. Gradually these became more regular visits.
“John had always wanted to go down Highway 61 so we did that for his birthday. Then I went to Alabama a couple of times to visit my friend Natalie Channing, who has a workshop where they hand-stitch clothing.
“Natalie was teaching me to sew and she said ‘You have to learn to love the thread’ in this beautiful accent, and it hit me as an enormous metaphor. Although I’m sure she actually meant it literally!
“So all of these trips were for different reasons but the songs came out of them as a natural by-product. I think our hearts were particularly open to that happening because every reason we went down had this huge emotional component — the Dyess project, my friendship with Natalie and how incredibly moving her artwork is, then John’s birthday and us going together on Highway 61 for the first time. All these side trips too, like to Robert Johnson’s grave, seeing where Emmett Till was murdered, our first visit to the Tallahatchie Bridge after I’d been singing the Bobbie Gentry song ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ for years, visiting William Faulkner’s house and Dockery Farms, the plantation where Howlin’ Wolf and Charley Patton worked and sang…”
Their journeys repeatedly took them through Memphis, the city of Cash’s birth, where they visited the studio of Sun Records, and watched their son strum a guitar in the same room where her father cut his first record.
“That was all really emotionally compelling. As songwriters I don’t know how we could have not written songs about it.”
She describes the album that emerged as a “mini-travelogue of the South and of the soul,” preferring to play the songs in order in concert. “That was something I’d wanted to do since I saw Lou Reed perform ‘Magic And Loss’ that way in New York City many years ago, and being absolutely blown away by it. Some of it challenges the audience and I like that — going on a journey together.
“I guess I weave in and out of these songs in a way, but the sentiment is universal. Most of us go a long way and try a lot of things before we come home to ourselves. To paraphrase Paul Theroux: ‘We go away to find the changes in ourselves. We go away to find our place in the world.’ ”
In Cash’s case, that included a stint in London at the height of the punk era, working for CBS Records and, echoing the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, many trips to mainland Europe, especially Paris and Barcelona. She has lived in Manhattan for many years and writes prose as much as she writes songs.
“Prose is an equally important part of my life really. Since 1994 when my book of short stories came out, I’ve written a lot of essays and prose pieces. I’ve just written an essay for a book about why people stay in New York, which was really fun to write. This summer I’m writing a piece for National Geographic about the Dyess Project and New Deal-era colonies.
“It’s important to me. I don’t really separate it from songwriting that much — it requires the same sort of poetic discipline. I love songwriting because of how prescribed it is, in that you’re married to a melody and so on, whereas there can be a lot more freedom in prose.”
And the musical thread remains unbroken, with her daughter Chelsea Crowell (from her first marriage to Rodney Crowell) also performing and recording. Which brings us back to that old question about musical families.
“Chelsea had a hard time with that — she’s got two generations in back of her and it’s been really hard for her. But she’s a great writer and she’s actually writing prose now for Rolling Stone Country. That’s fun for her but I hope she goes back to music.
“Jake, our son who’s 15, is deeply musical so I don’t know what he’s going to do. He’s a much better pianist than I ever thought of being. We do bring him on the road as often as we can and hire him as a roadie.
“The only way to not get dismantled by all that is to stay connected to your own muse, and immerse yourself completely in what you’re doing so it can be as rich and authentic as it can.
“But this record is getting some nice attention and I’m just grateful that at this point in my life I’m still doing good work and people are still noticing.
“That’s a huge deal. I know a lot of people my age have been doing it as long and they’re burnt out and they can’t get traction. It’s so hard, so I feel incredibly lucky.”