When the Master Calls the Roll

Album: The River & the Thread (2014)

Songfacts®:

  • This song was written by Rosanne Cash along with her husband John Leventhal and her ex-husband Rodney Crowell, who was married to Rosanne from 1979 to 1992. It was written for Emmylou Harris.

    Rosanne explained to Radio.com how she ended up recording it for her The River & the Thread album. "I loved the song so much, and I asked if I could have it, and they said no, they had written it for Emmylou," she said. "Then Emmylou decided not to record it. A few months went by, and I said to John, 'Do you think Rodney would be offended if I asked him to rewrite the lyrics with me?' And at first he said, 'Oh I don't think that's appropriate.' And finally I said, 'I'm just going to ask him.'"

    "And at the same time, my son, who was 13, was doing a Civil War project in 8th grade," she added. "And I said to him, 'You know you have Cash ancestors on both sides of the Civil War. there are Confederate Cashes and Union Cash soldiers.' I went on the Civil War database to show him, and this picture came up of William Cash. It was chilling."

    "So I became obsessed with it," Rosanne continued. "I looked up in our genealogy, women who would have been 20 or 21 at the start of the Civil War, and I found a Mary Ann Cash. So I put them together. I called Rodney and said, 'Would you be willing to do this?' And he said 'Sure, I'll write a Civil War ballad with you.' Just crazy. So he came over, next time he was in New York, and we started writing it."
  • Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Tony Joe White and Amy Helm all sing on this cut. "We were going to be in Tennessee, and we wanted some kind of 'voice of God' choir on the song," Rosanne explained to Radio.com. "The three of us started talking about who to invite, and it turned out Kris was going to be in Nashville that day. John Prine was in the neighborhood, Tony Joe White is in the neighborhood."

    "I'll never forget that day, because they all showed up like staggered arrivals," continued Rosanne. "And they all were old, old friends who hadn't seen each other in a long time. Just to see them greet each other was so powerful and sweet. And then to put all of them behind glass. Tony Joe showed up and said, 'I'm not going to sing. I just stopped by to see everybody.' And of course we got him behind the glass."

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