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Cash goes back home

By Dan MacIntosh, May 2014

Rosanne Cash may be the daughter of a famous country music icon, but like her late father, Cash is an artist first, and ‘country artist' is just one of the many labels applied to what she does. She's first and foremost a songwriter, and her latest album, "The River & the Thread," touches upon country, folk, blues and even gospel styles, with a lyrical focus that placed Cash face to face with her Southern roots.

The inspiration for what eventually became Cash's "The River & The Thread" album partially had its genesis with one particular song that eventually landed on the recording.

"I had written chorus to ‘Feather's Not A Bird,'" she recalls "and we took this trip through Alabama and Mississippi and Arkansas back to Memphis and that song started to form."

"And then [husband] John [Leventhal] said, ‘You know, I think there's something here.' So then we kept feeding it. We kept going back, and we would pick certain places or instances and start writing about them. Even when we were about to go to Barcelona, I then ended up back in Memphis. I wanted to put Barcelona and Memphis in the same song. I thought that would be cool. And then we got close to finishing it, and John said, ‘Man, we need a gospel song; you can't have a Southern album without a gospel song.' Neither one of us is really religious, so we wrote an ecumenical gospel song, ‘Tell Heaven.'"

Rosanne Cash performs

It's a little ironic that Cash wrote "When the Master Calls" -- a song about the Civil War where two sides of a nation could only solve their differences by going to war - with her current husband (Leventhal) and also her ex-husband (Rodney Crowell).

"That one came about circuitously," Cash explains. "John and Rodney had already written a song with that melody. It was John's melody. I heard it, and I loved it, but they had written it for Emmylou (Harris). And a year went by, and Emmylou hadn't recorded it, and I said, ‘Well, I'd still love to have it.' And then my son was studying the Civil War, and I took him on the Civil War database, and there was a picture of William Cash, and I asked Rodney, ‘Would you be willing to rewrite those lyrics as a Civil War ballad,' and he said, ‘Yes.' Those (in the song) are my ancestors, both of them."

Fortunately, Cash and her talented ex-husband still have a good working relationship. "It's not like Rodney, and I hadn't worked together since we were divorced," she reminds. "And John and Rodney had worked together. Rodney and I have done shows, not just the two of us, but certainly festivals and stuff where we were on the same bill. He and I are friends. We spent a decade working out our stuff so we could be friends. And we really respect each other, so we had not written a song together, so that was, you know, in the very beginning I think I felt a little awkward, like, ‘How is this gonna work?' And Rodney is an incredibly meticulous writer. And so am I. But he's meticulous in a different way."

"So we had to find a way to meet each other. There were some little arguments over words or phrases, which is great because that's when really good stuff comes out. It was good and also the whole levels of metaphor, like the Union. Let the Union be healed. Working with my ex and my husband. That was great."

It's impossible to be a songwriter that was married to an esteemed songwriter, as Cash was with Crowell, without picking up a few pointers on how to improve one's craft.

"I was around him and Guy Clark a lot when I was a young songwriter," she recalls. "And they had a tremendous work ethic around songwriting. And a diligence and how seriously they took it. And Guy said, ‘You know, you have to throw out the best line in your song if it doesn't serve the rest of the song.' And nothing was ever good enough, know what I mean?"

"Rodney is kind of mystical in the way he thinks about poetry and songwriting," Cash continues. "It's good to be reminded to get into that head space of not trying to be perfect, but trying to tap into the source of great art."

When you're around masters like Crowell and Clark, it makes you picky – in a good way – about the music you listen to. "I hear songs today, and I cannot believe they're huge successes," Cash remarks, shocked. "These kind of trite lyrics thrown into a bombastic track, you know. When I grew up around songwriters when it was the most elegant craft in the world. It was as serious as Picasso took painting. That was so inspiring, and I've taken it with me to this day."

Making an album so steeped in Southern-ness, couldn't help but make Cash think a little bit more deeply about her own Southern roots.

"It sounds trite to say, ‘Getting in touch with your roots,'" she responds, "but honestly, that is what happened. Really, I just thought that being born in Memphis and the fact that my parents were Southerners was kind of a footnote in my life. And even though I still have family in the South and lived in the South a decade or a little more myself, I thought it was behind me. It was just, like, ‘I was born there,' but it doesn't mean anything to you. But these trips, in the last few years going down, not only did I see it still meant something to me, but I saw it meant something profound. On so many levels."

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