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Songs of the South

Rosanne Cash returns to her Memphis roots on new album

Photo: Clay Patrick McBride, License: N/A

Clay Patrick McBride

“I was one generation removed from cotton farmers on my father’s side—and I can’t escape that,” says Cash.


The key track on Rosanne Cash’s new album, The River & the Thread, is “The Long Way Home.” The music resembles the swampy guitar and spiky strings of Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis, and the drama of an outsider learning to love the South is the same. Only this time, the outsider is a daughter of the South who, after a long, self-imposed exile, is coming home.

“You thought you’d left it all behind,” Cash sings in an alto as silted as the Mississippi River. “You thought you’d up and gone, but all you did was figure out how to take the long way home.”

“That song does sum up that feeling of coming back to what I thought I’d left behind,” Cash says over the phone from her New York home. “I was one generation removed from cotton farmers on my father’s side—and I can’t escape that. The South had felt suffocating to me in the past, it felt too insular, but maybe I was looking at the wrong things. When I started looking at other things, the South opened up. Taking sewing lessons from Natalie Chanin in Alabama, spending time with Marshall and Etta Grant in Arkansas, walking through the doors of FAME Studios, all these made me see the South in a new light.”

Cash could be singing to anyone who ever left a Southern small town for a big city on one of the coasts. But mostly she’s singing to herself. She was born in Memphis on May 24, 1955, to a San Antonio Italian-American named Vivian Liberto and an Arkansas musician named Johnny Cash. By the time Rosanne was 3, her daddy was famous enough to live wherever he wanted, and he moved the family to Casitas Springs, Calif., northwest of Los Angeles. That was the first departure.

When Johnny married June Carter in 1968, after his divorce, he moved back to Tennessee, where his daughters visited him during the summers. In 1981, Rosanne and her then-husband Rodney Crowell, with several country hits already under their belts, moved from Southern California to a Nashville suburb. She’d had a huge success with the 1987 album King’s Record Shop, but when she released her most personal album, Interiors, in 1990, it got lukewarm support from Columbia Records and struck out on country radio.

“I had made Interiors and I was so proud of it,” Cash says. “I thought this was the most ‘me’ record I’d ever made. And they rejected it. I was heartbroken. I said, ‘What am I going to do? Am I going to make copies of King’s Record Shop for the rest of my life? I asked Columbia to let me go, and instead they transferred my contract to the New York office. I was still living in Nashville, but my marriage was falling apart, and I made The Wheel with John [Leventhal] in New York and we fell in love during that, so it made sense to move there. I’d always wanted to live in New York; I’d always felt like I was a New Yorker.”

That was the second departure. She still lives in Manhattan with her husband, Leventhal, but like most people, she became more interested in her roots after her parents died and she turned 50. In 2011, when Arkansas State University launched a campaign to buy and restore Johnny Cash’s childhood home in Dyess, Ark., she and Leventhal agreed to participate in a benefit concert for the cause.

“We were driving down to Dyess from New York,” Cash recalls, “and we passed through Osceola, Arkansas, where there was a sign that said Reggie Young grew up there. Reggie played guitar for Elvis, Dusty, and my dad, so that meant a lot to John. In Dyess, we got to spend time with Marshall Grant, who was one of the original Tennessee Two, and his wife, Etta, just before Marshall died. Etta told me that she and Marshall woke up every morning and said, ‘What’s the temperature, darling?’ Things like that meant a lot to me. As we were driving home, John said, ‘There’s something here. We should do something with this.’”

Cash and Leventhal had co-written songs before, but this was the first time that they set out to co-write an entire album unified by a central theme. They started making as many trips as they could to that area where Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and northern Alabama come together. They weren’t blind to the region’s problems—its reactionary politics, its inferior schools, its persistent poverty, its fundamentalist religion—but they chose to emphasize its equally undeniable virtues.

“I’m well aware of the South’s contradictions,” Cash says, “but I wasn’t trying to reconcile them; I wasn’t trying to proselytize. John and I wanted to point an arrow at the wonderful strangeness of the South, the mysteriousness represented by Truman Capote and William Faulkner, by Howlin’ Wolf and Charley Patton. That’s where our hearts resonated. It started not with an intent to research an album. It started with the beauty of Natalie [Chanin]’s art and the dignity of my grandmother Carrie’s life. Because I was going south willingly for once, I wasn’t pushing any of it away.”

Leventhal supplied most of the music, not an imitation of Southern styles but rather a dialogue between those styles and a lifelong New Yorker who has always loved roots music. So we get traditional gospel, blues, country, and rockabilly filtered through Leventhal’s sophisticated sensibility. Cash supplied most of the lyrics, but her husband pushed to get out of her comfort zone of introspective writing and instead to write narrative songs about people who weren’t herself. So we get “The Sunken Lands,” about Johnny’s mama, Carrie Cash; “Etta’s Tune,” about Etta Grant; “World of Strange Design,” about Natalie Chanin; and “When the Master Calls the Roll,” about a Civil War soldier and his fiancée.

“John pushed me a lot,” Cash admits. “He wanted me to write more third-person story songs instead of just ambient feelings. I felt self-conscious at first. I’d always wanted to write those narrative ballads like Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Blind Willie McTell,’ like Guy Clark’s ‘Randall Knife,’ or those Appalachian ballads, but I’d always felt I couldn’t tell someone else’s story in their voice. But after I completed ‘Etta’s Tune,’ I felt a little more confident. I couldn’t have written ‘When the Master Calls the Roll’ if I hadn’t written the others first. These songs feel different, more mature.”

“Dark highways and the country roads,” she sings in “The Long Way Home,” “don’t scare you like they did.” It’s been 56 years since she first moved out of Memphis, but Cash at last sounds comfortable with her Southern self.

Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal perform at the Lisner Auditorium Friday, Feb. 14.

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