Reviewed by Henry L. Carrigan Jr.
On her first album since 2009's "The List," Cash takes a journey back home down the rivers of music, memory, loss, and longing that run in cascading shoals through Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas. Produced and arranged by husband John Leventhal, who also plays guitar on the record and co-wrote the songs, the album also features an all-star cast of backing musicians and singers, including Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Amy Helm and Tony Joe White.
Leventhal's funky slide guitar kicks off the swampy shuffle A Feather's Not a Bird, a fitting opening track in which the journey carries the traveler on a sojourn of the soul "on through to Memphis/past the strongest shoals/then on to Arkansas just to touch the gumbo soul." On the journey, the singer learns "to love the thread" that weaves itself through her past, her physical and spiritual connections, creating the colorful pattern that binds her to the South in all its richness and strangeness. Modern Blues, to which her son Jake contributes background vocals, leads off with a John Hiatt-like riff in a rocker that ponders the curious yet gratifying feeling that you never leave home, and you always keep coming back home, no matter how far away you travel from it. The gospel-inflected 50,000 Watts celebrates Memphis radio station WDIA, which advertised itself as "50,000 watts of good will"; in When the Master Calls the Roll, Cash tells a poignant story of her ancestor, William Cash, a young Union soldier who perishes in the Civil War.
"The River & the Thread," the third in the trilogy that began with "Black Cadillac" in 2006 and "The List," album contains, without a doubt, her most reflective songwriting, in songs that range emotionally over a spiritual and physical terrain that haunts her.