Brazoria County is in for a real treat this evening, because Rosanne Cash is bringing a whole lot more than "Seven Year Ache" to Brazosport College's Clarion Theater. Her calling card this time is The River and the Thread, her cinematic, deeply soulful album-length account of the relatively recent trips she made to the region where Cash was born and partially raised, as well as the characters she encountered. Among them was Marshall Grant, the now-deceased bassist in her father Johnny's Tennessee Three, and a seamstress in Alabama who told Cash "you have to learn to love the thread."
The album, she allows, "didn't come from the outside in."
Instead the project was born out of the travels she and her husband, decorated songwriter/producer John Leventhal, had been taking, and the discussions they had. Cash calls River a "total collaboration," with her writing the lyrics and Leventhal the music.
"It was kind of time for me to make another record after [2009's] The List, and we couldn't see it," she explains. "John said, 'I'm just not interested in doing your next 12 songs,' just a hodgepodge, and I wasn't either.
"We really got to go deep into roots music that we both love so much: soul, country, pop, Southern gospel, Appalachia, all of it," continues Cash. "It was so exciting to jump into all of it, and to find these characters, geographical hot spots to populate the songs."
The places Cash and Leventhal visited include her hometown of Memphis, whence she moved away as a small child; her father's boyhood home in the "sunken lands" northwest of Memphis, which is now being restored by Arkansas State University; the famous Highway 61 from Memphis to New Orleans, known as the "blues highway" for the number of musicians traveling out of the Mississippi River delta to more urban areas; and Florence, Ala., near the famous Muscle Shoals studio, where Cash met the seamstress who helped inspire the album's title.
Its cover, though, portrays Cash looking out across the Tallahatchie River in northwestern Mississippi, not terribly far from Highway 61, standing on the same bridge made famous by Bobbie Gentry's 1967 hit "Ode to Billie Joe." Cash has actually been covering the song in her live show for years.
"There was this book called The Rose & the Briar, a book about American ballads, and they were doing a live show here in New York," she remembers. "They said, 'We'd love for you to sing something in it, and it doesn't even have to be a ballad mentioned in the book. Just pick one.' I was in the car and 'Ode to Billie Joe' came on the radio and I said, 'That's the one I want to do.' So I sang it that night."
Cash admits sorting through so many powerful memories, especially the ones surrounding both her dad's childhood home and her own, could be pretty overwhelming; "thinking about him as a little boy, his middle-aged daughter visiting his childhood bedroom -- I mean, that's a powerful thing for anybody," she says. But those memories could also be exhilarating, she notes, tagging "A Feather's Not a Bird" as an example.
However, Cash calls "When the Master Calls the Roll" the most evocative song on the album to her, due to its multi-part family connections to the Civil War -- in it, she looks through her ancestors' eyes at a marriage thwarted by "Lincoln's War," inspired by both a school project of her son's and a song she admired that her daughter had written. On top of that, she collaborated with both Leventhal and ex-husband/longtime close friend Rodney Crowell.
"We cracked the code of something I'd wanted to do for a long time, which is to write a narrative ballad in that Appalachian/Celtic tradition," Cash says. "I lived with those characters so intensely when we were writing the song that it was so satisfying. It was like a dream songwriting job."
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The River and the Thread has received a dream response as well. Cash's home page is strewn with gushing quotes from outlets like The New York Times, USA Today, NPR and Uncut, which named it the best album of 2014. But more than just critics are tuning in.
River reached No. 2 on Billboard's Top Country Albums tally, Cash's highest perch on that chart in her career. This past Wednesday the Americana Music Association named it as its No. 1 album of 2014, based on carefully monitored airplay reports. Her margin of victory was not released, but Cash came in ahead of younger acts such as Nickel Creek and Old Crow Medicine Show, as well as Crowell's Tarpaper Sky, which came in at No. 3. After it earned three nods at this year's Americana Music Association awards, moments ago the Grammys announced that River is up for Best Americana Album next February.
And if the Clarion seems like an odd booking, it's really not; both Travis Tritt and Vince Gill's new band the Time Jumpers have been there earlier this fall. Cash says her label, Blue Note, has invested 18 months in promoting River, so there's a chance Houston proper may see her yet. She is performing the new album in its entirety as the first half of the show, and a selections from her extensive catalog after intermission.
"We've been playing some great venues to beautiful audiences, so it seems to be working," she smiles. "[The album has] gotten some very nice attention. You can't complain about having work in this business."
To reach Brazosport College, take Highway 288 south from Houston and exit Oyster Creek Drive at Brazos Mall. The college is about four miles on the right past the railroad tracks; showtime is 7:30 p.m. As of 11:15 a.m. Friday, nine tickets were still available through the box office.
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