Album Review: Rosanne Cash - The River & The Thread

01.10.14
Rosanne Cash
Rough Stock

By Dan MacIntosh

Listening to Rosanne Cash’s latest release makes a person darn happy musicians still create proper albums. The best albums follow a consistent thread (no pun intended), whether lyrical or musical, and Cash’s newest, The River & the Thread, does both. It’s a meditation on many things Southern in nature, set to distinctly Southern sounding music.

Cash wrote the project’s 11 songs with her collaborator/husband John Leventhal, who also helped by producing, arranging and playing much of the release’s guitar work. The result is something that touches upon many highlights of Southern musical culture, from country twang to bluesy soul.

Although that last sentence may make this album sound like it has a limiting stylistic range, the variety Cash actually invests in it is sometimes breathtaking. The album opens with “The Feather’s Not a Bird,” which has a swampy, slightly Credence Clearwater Revival-esque vibe. Later, Cash gives us “Night School,” which is elaborately orchestrated. Still later, we’re treated to “When the Master Calls the Roll,” which has both a gospel lyric and gospel musical feel, yet turns out to be a sad ending Civil War tale. Interestingly, Cash had help from Leventhal (her current husband) and Rodney Crowell (ex-husband) in writing this tragic song. Although Cash has never written particularly religious music, “Tell Heaven” gets about as close as she ever has to penning a contemporary hymn. Without being overly preachy, its lyric quietly advises prayer as a solution to many situations when life lets you down. This one takes on a muted Dire Straits vibe, musically.

When first reading the list of album song titles, I immediately assumed “Etta’s Tune” was Cash’s tribute to late soul singer, Etta James. After all, a song about a Southern soul singer would have fit right in with the rest of the songs. However, this one is, in fact, a biographical sketch about Etta Grant, who was married to Marshall Grant, Johnny Cash’s longtime bassist in the original Tennessee Two, for 65 years. Grant was like a father figure to Rosanne, and the third person to hold the baby Cash after she was born. This was also the first song Cash wrote with Leventhal for the album.

While so much of this album is set in the South, Cash doesn’t strictly limit herself to Southern settings. For instance, she mentions both Spain and France on “Modern Blue.” The song, which name-drops a lot of different locales, goes a long way to make a relatively simple point – all the wealth of the world isn’t worth much without the affection of the ones we love.

Rosanne Cash is not one of music’s most productive artists, but like that quiet woman at the party, she always has something important and memorable to say whenever she speaks. With The River & the Thread, Cash writes and sings about the world she knows best, the South. The South is like a bottomless well of inspiration; one where ghosts from both a proud and shameful past can always be conjured up vividly with just the right musical spell. Cash may not be any kind of a shaman, but she’s a smart and honest songwriter with well-honed skills. The River & the Thread proves her skills have not diminished one iota.

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