Capping a career where she fought to be seen as something other than Johnny Cash's daughter into a bona fide country hitmaker who forged her own way out of Nashville, the work is earning Cash, at 58, some of the best reviews of her career. She spoke over the phone from her home in New York, where she does a lot of her writing, about her trips South, the Tallahatchie Bridge, and where songs come from.
Rosanne Cash: I'm really, really pleased. I'm not necessarily seduced by it. I'm too old to be seduced by it. Who doesn't love when their work is recognized and praised? It's nice. It's really nice.
Songfacts: Was this album a long time in coming?
Rosanne: Oh no. Not at all. I wrote a memoir in that time, I recorded The List, an album of covers. I was writing a few songs, but not that many. John and I were talking about what kind of record we wanted to make. Neither one of us were interested in just writing our next 12 songs and throwing them together. We wanted a theme that was really resonant, that was something we could both really get inside. And it just so happens when we started talking about it that we started taking all these trips down South, and there was a perfect storm of events and inspiration.
The first song we wrote was "Etta's Tune." After we wrote that one we said, this is what we're going to do; this is going to be a record about the South, and these people, and these characters, these places, the sense of time travel, the peculiarities of the South. We kept dipping back into that well to find new songs.
Songfacts: Had you not explored that part of that country?
Rosanne: It's not that we didn't know it. I lived in Nashville for nine years, and have been to the South tons. I'd even been to Dyess [Arkansas], where my dad was raised as a kid. I hadn't been back there as an adult though. And I still had extended family in Memphis. I reconnected with my cousin in Memphis and went to Dyess, really for the first time, and took in how hard my grandmother's life was: raising seven children and picking cotton. I really looked into the fact that my son is a fifth generation New Yorker on my husband's side – fifth generation: there aren't many of those who exist – and yet one generation back on my side, my family were cotton pickers. That kind of blew my mind.
The connections were there - the threads, if you will. And at the same time I have a dear friend in Florence, Alabama [home of the Muscle Shoals Sound] and I was going down there to see her in her studio, Natalie Chanin, and she was teaching me to sew, and she said this great line: "You have to love the thread." I started thinking about it in a bigger way. And of course the music of the South and Appalachia were deeply embedded in both of us, and John was getting really inspired as well.
Songfacts: Do you feel you were writing the best songs of your career?
I'm not the only songwriter who feels their songs are complete in the ether, that they're out there and if you just keep working at refining your skills you get better and better songs.
I was talking to a friend today who said, "yeah, sometimes I say, 'Don't go anywhere, I'll be able to get to you at some point.'" And I feel that's what happened: We finally got to those songs that were the best.
Songfacts: Were they already there waiting for you to find them?
Rosanne: They exist somewhere else, whole, in some creative realm. You know it's interesting, somebody said to me, "Dylan never says, 'when I wrote,' he always says 'when it was written.'"
Not in a Biblical sense, but songs are part of the fabric of the universe already and songwriters, you get the songs you're able to get. I'll never get Dylan's songs, but I got some songs that were good for me.
News of the tragedy comes within bland conversation at the dinner table, and the news that someone saw Billie Joe with a girl who looked a lot like the narrator throwing something off that same bridge not long before.
The scene shifts to a year later. Some have died, some have married and moved away. But the narrator visits the bridge where she throws flowers into the muddy waters.
What was it that was thrown from the bridge? Did it cause Billie Joe to jump as well? It is never revealed in the haunting song, that went on to win three Grammy awards (Gentry also won for Best New Artist).
Rosanne Cash regularly sings the classic in her current live show and is pictured on her album The River & the Thread looking out from that same bridge in Chickasaw County, Mississippi.
Rosanne: Yeah, it certainly did. We were in Oxford, Mississippi. John loves Faulkner, and studied Faulkner in college, so we wanted to go to Faulkner's house at the start of one of these trips, one that went down Highway 61. Which was a great way to start this trip – immersing ourselves in the idea of one of the greatest American writers.
We went to Greenwood [Mississippi], then we went to Robert Johnson's grave, on Money Road, at this little church called the Little Zion Church. And there was nobody there, there were no signs, no big gift shop, nothing. You just had to find it yourself.
Then we drove further down Money Road to Money, Mississippi, where Emmett Till was murdered. And the grocery store, Bryant's Grocery store, was still standing there – about falling down to the ground. And there was a little sign of what happened there.
But it was hard to take in. There was nobody there. It was key to where the Civil Rights Movement began, right at that spot. It chills you to your core.
And then we drove right around the corner to the Tallahatchie Bridge. So close you could walk. It was unbelievable. In my mind the Tallahatchie Bridge was enormous, but it's just a little modest bridge over this little Tallahatchie River. Nobody there. We sat on the bridge for a half an hour and one car went by.
Songfacts: Do you ever wonder whether a bunch of songs this good are going to come again for you?
Rosanne: Every time. I'm already thinking: Oh my god, I've already written the best good songs of my life. That's it. It's over.
Songfacts: Is there a place you go to work on songs or await them?
Rosanne: I write a lot of songs at my kitchen table. I like being in the kitchen for some reason. I like getting up and making a cup of tea, or hearing if somebody is coming to the door.
I like little interruptions because it helps me refocus. A lot of people I know are super organized and they have to have a desk and have to have quiet for eight hours straight. I would go mad.
Songfacts: Did recording and touring The List help prime the pump for you in writing The River & The Thread?
Rosanne: Sure it did. Immersing yourself in truly great songs, and being humbled by that, and examining them from the inside out and singing them for a few years - one thing it makes you aware of is that you're never going to write "Long Black Veil" or "Take These Chains from My Heart." You're never going to write that. They've been here forever and they will be here forever. But in a way, that gives you freedom to find your own best songs. And that's what we've done.
February 19, 2014. Get more at rosannecash.com.
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