Best of 2014: Rosanne Cash - "The River and the Thread"
It starts with a guitar, and the blues. The sudden, slow slide sounds like someone just picked up an instrument to see if they could scare out some music. The riff doesn’t get very far before the rhythm kicks in, and the quietly descending blues scales that overlay the rhythm guitar, and the sticks that hop from snare to tom, and the strolling bass line. It’s all so familiar, these melodies and rhythms, that by the time the voice enters at eight bars in, you already suspect the next 12 songs are going to flow out with the at-once familiarity and intrigue that comes from pulling your great-grandmother’s quilt out of a hope chest.
When the lyrics come, they’re delivered with the sort of internal monologue only a poet of Rosanne Cash’s caliber could pull off without being dismissed as “navel-gazing” or, worse, “confessional.”
I’m going down to Florence, gonna wear a pretty dress
I’ll sit atop the magic wall with the voices in my head
Then I’ll drive on through to Memphis, past the strongest shoals
And on to Arkansas just to touch the gumbo soul
It’s a road-trip song, you might start to believe – that old American tradition – couched in the music of the Delta with deep roots that call to mind all the singular, separated images we associate with the South: hospitality, racial tension, sweet tea, violence, porch swings, Jim Crow, New Deal villages, and the kind of poverty where people either grit their teeth, give in, or make art.
“These are stories,” Cash says, with emphasis. “There are some really, really painful stories in the Southern psyche, and then there’s some of the greatest music ever created and some of the greatest literature. People don’t see themselves in black and white.”
“Even though some [Southern people] didn’t have phoenix stories in their personal lives,” she adds, referencing her father’s rise from poverty, “there was still something timeless that came out of hardship, in many cases. There were cotton-field workers on Dockery Farms, in Mississippi. [They did] back-breaking labor during the day, then … they hung mirrors in this juke joint. There was no electricity, so they hung big mirrors and put coal oil lights in front of them. Even from a great distance, the whole place looked lit-up. They’d play music until the wee hours of the night. Great blues musicians – Charley Patton and Howlin’ Wolf – were farm workers there. And that little tiny story encapsulates a much bigger story in the South.”
Dig deeper into the record that resulted from Cash and her husband/collaborator John Leventhal considering these threads, and you start to realize that, just like the Southland that inspired it, The River and the Thread doesn’t just tell tales, it presents them in a way that makes clear that stories – what people actually confront in their daily lives, and how they talk about those things – are the vehicles that move us forward as a society. It’s a profound holistic statement, and she carries it from the first song to the last. In fact, in a sort of Shakespearean introductory gauntlet-toss, she declares in the very first track: A story cannot exist without all its characters, all its scenes, all its locations and implications. Just as you cannot get a picture of the South by looking at just one of those images mentioned above, so you cannot understand your own inherited legacy without considering the whole of history. Suddenly the road-trip song is less about the road and more about why the singer is on it, how she found the road, and what a road even is:
A feather’s not a bird
the rain is not the sea
a stone is not a mountain
but a river runs through me
So much of what has been written about this album – which ND’s commissioned writers chose as the Album of the Year for 2014 – tells the story of how Cash found its inspiration: She was invited to help raise funds to save her father’s boyhood home in Arkansas. Then a man who was like a second father to her – Marshall Grant, the bass player for Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two – died, which bubbled up a well of new emotions about the past and where she came from. Then she visited a friend in Alabama, who said something offhand that sparked Cash’s inner poet. She drove through Alabama and Mississippi and Tennessee, visiting the grave of Robert Johnson, seeing where Emmett Till was shot, standing on the Tallahatchie Bridge (a photo Leventhal took of her on that bridge became the cover shot on the album). Certainly, all these things are vital to the story of how this record came into being. But they don’t even begin to touch on what made it resonate so strongly and deeply as to earn the distinction of being called, by at least this particular group of people, the Best Album of 2014.
For that, we have to consider the year in which it was released. There has perhaps been no more relevant and timely album in 2014 than The River and the Thread. It came in a year when the South rose to new prominence in a few notable ways, became restless, checked itself in the mirror. There has been renewed racial tension from the Texas border to the streets of Ferguson, MO. Southern conservatives – one of only two groups we’re to believe exist in the South – are leaning hard on things like traditional marriage and Christ-centered family, while progressives tug on their steadfast dedication to marriage equality and reproductive rights. Meanwhile, somehow, community gardens thrive, young African-American women are at the front of one of the most energized social movements in recent history, neighborhood associations commit to planting trees or after-school arts programs, city councils and business owners speak out in support of their LGBT neighbors. Individuals try to take the best things out of the past and leave the worst to rot. Whatever “people” may be doing (according to the news), individuals are trying to work together, to move forward. As Cash’s creation attests, though, this has always been at least part of the truth.
We have, as an American culture, taken to discussing the region as if it is a single-narrative snapshot of culture, where the morals are cut and dried, like two columns on a page: rebel or union, white or black, American or immigrant, gay or straight, illiterate or educated, traditionalist or progressive. Meanwhile, reality happens, right alongside – and despite – our definitions of it. And reality is far more complex than all that. Though centuries-old inequitable systems persist, the threads of the South brush more freely against the things individuals confront from day to day as they push ahead with life despite its challenges, despite its heartaches, as they raise their kids and do their thing and carry on.
“I have a lot of thoughts about that,” Cash says, when I ask her about these things, and how – and if – they have anything to do with The River and the Thread. “We purposely avoided proselytizing about the social issues and political issues, or taking sides ... . That wouldn’t expand our hearts. That wouldn’t necessarily lead us to the great music. At the same time, I think there are natural comments on those things that you mentioned … . You can’t separate the violence, racism, and history of the Deep South from the profundity of the music and literature that came from there. The fact that William Faulkner lived down the road from Robert Johnson, who lived down the road from Eudora Welty, who lived down the road from Howlin’ Wolf, who lived down the road from Pop Staples. You go a little further down the river and there’s the musical stew that was in Memphis. What came out of Arkansas – my dad [Johnny Cash], Albert King. Then over to the east, Muscle Shoals … it’s almost inconceivable.
“I’ve never, ever been good at writing protest songs or topical songs,” she continues. “I’d rather look at it all through the prism of an artist and point in a direction of what’s real – what’s poetically real and what is still haunted. [I’m interested in] what has resonance to me personally, and the characters. The richness of the South. You know, it’s both destructive and artful. There’s both.”
What has resonance to Cash – and what comes across on The River and the Thread as particularly resonant – is the way details stick out. They aren’t manipulated as story elements; they’re fixated on, the way memories are stashed in our heads. The way one might see a can of paint and remember moving into a new home as a child and seeing five cans of paint in the front room right after the walls got a fresh coat.
Five cans of paint
And the empty fields
The dust reveals
In a global sense, the paint cans are a symbol of covering up problems rather than solving them, sure; but, more personally, they're about a clean slate, a new start. The song that employs them, “Sunken Lands,” is a tribute to Cash’s grandmother, who worked and raised five children and took the brunt of a frustrated husband, retaining her own dignity and pride throughout. This is the kind of truth that defies time and history: The image of a struggling, hard-working mother in a small house, hoping this new start is as promising as it feels in this fleeting moment. The image is just as real in the small Southern towns of 2014 as it was nearly a century ago. There’s no skin color in the song, no political grandstanding, none of what we might assume should be included in a Southern story. It’s just a family and a woman, and work to do.
If any song is difficult to put in a contemporary context, it might be “When the Master Calls the Roll.” It is the consummate Civil War song, but even here, it’s not about battles and gore. Cash explores the inner conflict that arises before joining the outer conflict. There’s no skin color or political statement here, either; there’s not even a side of the conflict. The soldier she sings about could just as well have been fighting for the Confederacy as for the Union, since the questions he raises are about the intersection between family and country, love and duty. All of this spins through the lyrics, which Cash co-wrote with Rodney Crowell, but which follows so closely the lilt and linguistic patterns of old Appalachian folk songs that it feels old and new at the same time.
My tender bride, the tides demand
that I leave you with your mother
With my father’s rifle in one hand,
your locket in another…
It’s personal, the decision to put life aside to participate in something that’s bigger than oneself. The same inner conflict emerges whether one is enlisting in the military or protesting changes in voting rights legislation or standing up for any kind of right –decisions being made across the current South, every day. And, like Cash and Crowell’s lyrics, these conflicts often feel like they were already dealt with long ago, yet the need to revisit them is pressing.
“50,000 Watts” explores the lifeline that radio provided for Cash’s grandparents and parents, and the musicians who taught her what music is capable of. “BB King had been a disc jockey in the ’40s,” she says. “It was soul music, and all those guys at Sun Records listened to WDIA, and it was powerful. It changed everything.”
“Ry Cooder told me he felt like such a strange boy, disconnected,” she continues. “He didn’t feel understood in the world. Then he heard ‘Hey Porter’ on the radio and he thought to himself, ‘There are people who know me, there are things out there I understand. There’s something I’m a part of.’ And that’s salvation. That song means a lot to me for the same reason, because I had that experience, too, lots of times.”
Indeed, salvation is the avenue music has always provided, whether for a young Cooder hearing Johnny Cash for the first time, for Charley Patton in that juke joint, or for a young girl today who clicks on a link someone tweeted from the other side of the world. These threads connect us in every direction – forward and back, yes, but also laterally, to the South and to parts of ourselves, the parts of our history that exist here and now.
The fact that there’s something to gain from digging into the past, other than simply being entertained by how much things have changed, is not lost on Cash. “I thought it was just an anecdote in my life that I was born in Memphis,” she says, “and I found how important and precious it is to me that that’s where I came from – that musical stew and those people and how innocent they were – my mom 20 years old, my dad 22. How much my dad longed for the music. My grandmother’s life and how hard it was and me as a modern woman, that I could not do that, yet some of the resilience she had lives on in me and my kids.
“People want to know their own stories, and who they’re connected to, what it means for their own lives and their own children. When I do these songs live, it’s not just the people from the South, or who have experiences of the South, that it resonates with. The very fact of exploring something meaningful and looking for your own stories – that’s inspiring and it means something to them. They can feel that in themselves. [Bob] Dylan said that, too, and I’ve found it to be so true: an audience doesn’t come to hear your feelings. They come to find their own feelings.”
This month, we have profiled selections from the Top 5 Albums of the Year according to ND's commissioned writers and critics. Each writer was asked to write about the parts of the album that were most striking to them. Readers' Poll results can be viewed here.