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(Blue Note Records 1951102 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/22/2014)
Sometimes, artists will emerge, seemingly fully formed, with music showing a surprising amount of depth. But among singer-songwriters experience can bring a lot to one's songs. This week we have the newest release by an artist who has had plenty of experience in many ways, both personal and musical, and it results in one of those gems of an album that has much to offer in terms of profundity and taste. It's from Rosanne Cash, and her new recording, her first in about five years is called The River and the Thread. And it's an album full of thoughtful songs, many of which come from personal experience, background or circumstance.
Ms. Cash, of course, is the daughter of Johnny Cash and his first wife Vivian. Born in Memphis, she grew up mainly in California, where her father's family was living at the time. After graduating from high school, she began her musical experience touring with her father's band, first as an off-stage staffer and then doing backing vocals. She later attended college and eventually started recording demos of her own music, with the aid of Rodney Crowell, who was part of Emmylou Harris' band, and would later become Ms. Cash's husband for 13 years. Together they raised a family and created albums which would become significant hits and critical successes, such as Seven Year Ache and Rhythm and Romance.
But her performing career became somewhat intermittent due to spending time raising her children, and also being treated for substance abuse.
After her divorce from Crowell, Ms. Cash moved to New York, where she began working with producer and multi-instrumentalist John Leventhal, who produced her 1993 album The Wheel. They married in 1995 and continued recording occasionally, though personal circumstance put further gaps in her performing career, such a vocal cord polyp, and diagnosis of a rare condition requiring brain surgery in 2007, from which her recovery was fairly lengthy.
Her last album, The List, was a collection of few of of the 100 classic compositions that her father gave her when she was a teenager, songs he thought she should know. Now five years later, instead of following up on that successful album, she is out with The River and the Thread, a new collection of songs she wrote with Leventhal. I think it's one of her best ever.
Because of her family pedigree and the musicians who had been her musical associates over the years, she often listed as a country artist, and indeed has won a number of awards in the country category. But except for a potentially twangy guitar here and there, The River and the Thread is hardly a country album. It's a thoughtful, frequently introspective, somewhat electric singer-songwriter album that is beautifully produced and arranged. The songs are often intriguing lyrically, seeming to leave lot unsaid. It helps to go to her website to look at the inspiration for some of the compositions. Ms. Cash is vocally at her best, and the instrumental performance on the album are understated and tasteful.
Leventhal plays a lot of the instruments on the record, in same cases almost everything except for the vocals. And there are some notable backing vocal guests, including John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, jazz singer Catherine Russell, and pop singer Cory Chisel.
Ms. Cash initially though of her next album as a kind of third part of a triptych that started with the album Black Cadillac which was about some personal losses, including her father and stepmother, and The List which took her back to her early days. But the songs for The River and the Thread started taking shape when the University of Arkansas contacted her about purchasing and preserving Johnny Cash's boyhood home in Dyess, Arkansas. She gave a series of concerts there and evoking her early memories of the South, which became a running theme of the album.
The opening song A Feather's Not A Bird commences with a line referring to the region around Memphis in this intriguing rootsy arrangement. <<>>
Also with images of the South is the following song, The Sunken Land, in which John Leventhal plays all the instruments. <<>>
When I first heard the track called Etta's Tune I knew there must be a story behind it. Ms. Cash says it was inspired by Etta Grant, the wife of Marshall Grant, who played bass for Johnny Cash, and who was a kind of father figure for Rosanne. Grant showed up to rehearse for one of Ms. Cash's benefit concerts for preserving Johnny Cash's boyhood home. Grant suffered a brain aneurysm that night and died three days later. This was one of the first songs to take shape for the album, and it's a real highlight. <<>>
There are a couple of what I suppose could be called indirect spirituals. Tell Heaven is kind of reminder of the usefulness of prayer. It's hardly a typical Gospel tune, and its somber rock sound is rather intriguing. <<>>
Another song along the same lyrical lines is World of Strange Design which is an interesting mix of swamp rock and textural hints of the Johnny Cash style. <<>>
Something of a departure for the album is piece called Night School, with a contemplative sound featuring a small string section. <<>>
Ms. Cash said that her kids were involved in a school project on the Civil War, and she knew she had soldier ancestors on both sides. When a photo was found of William Cash of Massachusetts, she was moved to adapt a song that her husband Leventhal and ex-husband Rodney Crowell had been working on. The result is The Master Calls the Roll, which features a backing chorus that includes John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Tony Joe White, Amy Helm and Rodney Crowell. <<>>
The CD ends with a piece called Money Road which is based on a spot Ms. Cash and Leventhal discovered where within a short distance lie the famous Tallahatchie Bridge of Bobby Gentry's song Ode to Billie Joe, the place where Emmit Till's death helped to spawn the Civil Rights movement, and the grave of bluesman Robert Johnson. Leventhal adds a further quirk into the mix with his electric sitar solo. <<>>
Rosanne Cash has had a lengthy and artistically rich and varied career. In addition to her music, she is also an author and has done some film and TV work. Often grouped among country artists as much because of her heritage as anything else, she has not done much straight country music. The River and the Thread, her new 13th studio album over a course of 34 years, is one of her best yet, with deep thoughtful songs steeped in a kind of musical search for her Southern roots. Very much a joint project with her husband John Leventhal, who served as producer, shared songwriting credits and played most of the instruments, the recording is marked by thoroughly good taste with very little of the country cliches that one might expect. The lyrics are personal, and Ms. Cash brings a kind of mature grace to them.
My one problem with the recording is the unfortunately too common bugaboo -- sound quality. The mix is very nice and has good clarity, but the mastering engineer or record company again fell victim to the brain-dead CD volume wars. The recording was overly compressed for absolutely no good reason, and Ms. Cash's vocals were cranked to the point of some distortion.
Rosanne Cash has been making some fine records over the years, some more toward country than others. River and the Thread which she looks upon as the third part of a kind of autobiographical sequence that began with Black Cadillac and continued through The List, is one of her finest to date.
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