19 January 2014
Produced and arranged by John Leventhal
Co-produced by Rick DePofi
All songs written by Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal
Except “When The Master Calls The Roll” written by Rosanne Cash, John Leventhal and Rodney Crowell, “Two Girls” written by Townes Van Zandt, “Biloxi” written by Jesse Winchester.
Date of Release: 14 January 2014
I grew up in a small town in a county adjacent to Louisville, which touts itself as being either the northernmost Southern city, or the southernmost Northern city, depending on your perspective. I've always been very much the cliche of the small town kid impatient with home, drawn by the idea of the hustle and bustle - and sophistication - of a large city. In my brief, healthy adulthood I got to do a bit of traveling and I loved it. My brother, on the other hand, insists that our small hometown has gotten too big for his liking. This is probably the chief reason I identify so closely with Rosanne Cash. My parents divorced when I was a young boy, but never lived more than two counties away from one another, and yet they may as well have been as far apart as Cash's mother in California was from her father in Tennessee.
The reason that mainstream radio targets young listeners is because they're the ones desperate to engage the world, but kept at arm's length. But the thing is, there's almost always about a decade age gap between the stars of radio and the listeners. Your radio heroes become your big brothers and big sisters, really. They're scouting the world for you, letting you know the inside dope on the things that you don't trust your parents to know about. And so here we are, at this point in our lives, where Rosanne Cash is still scouting ahead for me, but about very different things from when we were both younger.
Some have probably called The River & the Thread a "homecoming" album, given that it's all about Cash's Southern roots in Arkansas, Tennessee, and the Mississippi Delta. Sure, it is that, but it's something else. It's a reconciliation album. I hear on this album the phrasing of a woman who has learned to forgive herself for having once been impatient with these places and these parts of herself. If the album has a thesis song, it is surely "The Long Way Home", in which Cash waves off any attempted apology from the past. "You thought you left it all behind/You thought you'd up and gone/But all you did was figure out/How to take the long way home". It's not just acceptance and forgiveness; there's also self-validation to these lyrics. They're the kind of thing one can only write when one feels contented with the choices they've made.
No matter how self-assured everyone else ever thinks you are, you know when you up the ante that the stakes go up, too. Every act of rebellion, every time you roll your eyes, every fight you pick; they all cause some part of you to ask whether you're trying to burn a bridge. Sometimes you really aren't; you just can't go down the path in front of you for reasons you don't even understand. And sometimes, truth be told, you are trying to burn a bridge. Getting older is about passing judgment on yourself for all of those times, and assessing whether your little insurrections got you anywhere or if they were a tempest in a teacup. I hear on this album, and in "The Long Way Home" specifically, that Cash has acquitted herself. That's good to know, because it means that one day I might, too.
By definition, and pursuant to the terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1850, all music about the South romanticizes. Yet, I don't hear romanticizing on The River & the Thread. (That's even more impressive when you account for the fact that "When the Master Calls the Roll" is about the Civil War.) For the most part, references to other people are either immediately specific (as in "Etta's Tune", perhaps my favorite song in the collection, a sweet and endearing tribute to Etta Marshall), or in a sort of universal "we" sense. There are no "all us Southerners" anthems to be found here; such a song would be too pedestrian. You can find those songs blaring down the highway. Cash is strolling down dirt roads here - actual, honest to God roads made of honest to God dirt. She doesn't even have to mention the honeysuckle or the humidity. They're just implied, and those are things that as a young boy I have to admit, I found I noticed them more when I was at my dad's. (Alright, fine; I enjoyed them more then, too. But I'll deny it if you say I said so.)
The River & the Thread isn't going to land any singles in the Billboard Top Country Airplay chart, and that's fine. The young people tuning into country radio aren't ready for this album. They're still itching to get on the highway to take them across the South, and out of it. This album is for listeners at a different place in their lives, who have gotten that out of their system. I wouldn't have truly appreciated or understood The River & the Thread 15 years ago, but the fun thing is, Rosanne Cash couldn't have written or recorded it then, either.
It's nice to have a scout looking ahead for you.