By David Werther.
Rosanne Cash, The River and Thread (Blue Note Records, 2014)
The River and the Thread is a collaboration between Rosanne Cash and husband “Mr. L,” John Leventhal. Rosanne supplied most of the lyrics and John most of the music. The origin of the album lies in a depression-era project: selected families were supplied with a simple house, some acreage… and a chance to make a go of it. Among those fortunate enough to have an opportunity to start anew were Rosanne’s grandparents Ray and Carrie Cash. They brought their family of seven, including their third son J.R. (later to be known as Johnny) to the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) project in Dyess, Arkansas. When the Arkansas State University decided to purchase and restore the Cash home, Rosanne Cash agreed to participate in fundraising. As a result, Rosanne and Mr. L began traveling in the southern delta region, and writing songs.
The CD cover shows Rosanne Cash looking out from a bridge over the Tallahatchie River, near Money, Mississippi. References in the CD’s last song, “Money Road" ( “One lies in the Zion yard; And one sleeps on the river bar"), bring to mind two of our nation’s most tragic murders. Emmett Till, a fourteen year-old black man, visited Money, and allegedly flirted with a white woman. Vigilantes beat him, took out one of his eyes, shot him in the head, and then threw his dead body (weighted down by a seventy-pound cotton gin fan) into the Tallahatchie River. The grave in Zion may be the resting place of the greatest bluesmen of all time, Robert Johnson. According to one story, Johnson was poisoned by a jealous husband. Ending her CD on "Money Road" symbolizes that Cash and Leventhal are willing to follow the river and the thread wherever they lead.
Following the thread of her life led Rosanne Cash to write a song about Marshall (Johnny Cash’s longtime bass player) and Etta Grant, “Etta’s Tune.” The song’s refrain, “What’s the temperature darling?” was the Grants’ daily greeting in their sixty-five year marriage.
Over the years, Grant must have played Johnny Cash’s song “Five Feet High and Risin” thousands of times. The song chronicles the flooding of the Cash farm in Dyess. Rosanne Cash’s “Sunken Lands” describes her grandmother’s grueling existence growing cotton and raising a family.
In “When the Master Calls the Roll,“ Cash takes an imaginary journey further back in time. She begins the song with a civil war era personal ad for a man who is “Just as faithful as the day is long and careful with his money.” A marriage results, but “til death do us part” turns out to be a very short time, for the husband dies in the Civil War. But death does not have the last word, for: “What man has torn asunder; Will someday be made whole; When the master calls the roll.”
Cash’s journey through time and space is varied, but the dominant “coloring” is blue. In the only song she wrote in the first person, “Modern Blue,” Cash sings of “a million shades of modern blue,” an appropriate description of Rosanne and Mr. L’s masterful tapestry, The River and the Thread.