Alabama Chanin friend and inspiration, Rosanne Cash, has lived in New York for over 20 years, but her link to the South remains deep and undeniable. Her mother, Vivian Liberto, was born in Texas and her father, Johnny Cash, was an Arkansas native. Rosanne was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and raised for much of her life in California. As a young woman, she also spent time living in Los Angeles, Nashville, London, among other stops on the road. Though she did not grow up in the South, her connection to the region is profound, largely because of what the South meant to her family and how that shaped her growth. It is this connection to the South and the region’s physical, musical, and emotional landscape that she explores in her newest record, The River & the Thread.
Rosanne found herself traveling southward frequently when Arkansas State University began restoring her father’s childhood home in Dyess, Arkansas. Knowing how much her father would have loved the project, Rosanne agreed to participate – which initiated a series of visits. As she traveled, she began to reconnect with the Southern sense of place, so essential to her family identity. She, along with husband and longtime collaborator, John Leventhal, began to shape and create an entire series of songs, all about the South. Rosanne said, “I started going back to where I was born and these songs started arriving in me. My heart got expanded to the South, to the people I had known, to the people I met… We started finding these stories, these great stories, and melodies that went with these experiences.”
The first song written for the record, “Etta’s Tune,” features vocals from another Alabama Chanin favorite, John Paul White, and was written to honor Marshall Grant—bass player in the original Tennessee Two—and his wife, Etta. Another song, “Money Road,” follows her journey to Money, Mississippi, visiting Robert Johnson’s grave and the haunting place that witnessed the murder of Emmett Till at the genesis of the American Civil Rights movement. She and Leventhal also sought out the Tallahatchie Bridge, made famous by Bobbie Gentry’s song, “Ode to Billie Joe.” Rosanne says, “We were dreaming of the Tallahatchie Bridge, and we found it.”
We were lucky enough to really get to know Rosanne much better during these trips, and she eventually visited The Factory for a therapeutic weekend of stitching and storytelling. During this trip, she began writing “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” the record’s opening song, which follows her from Florence, Alabama, to Arkansas. In it, she sings of “going down to Florence, just to learn to love the thread.” Rosanne said “Natalie was teaching me to sew and she said, ‘You have to learn to love the thread,’ in this beautiful accent, and it hit me as an enormous metaphor.” She also visited Tom Hendrix’ Wichahpi Commemorative Wall (known around here as simply, The Wall). Rosanne felt (as have we) a spiritual source of inspiration here and that is also reflected in the song. Needless to say, we are honored to have Rosanne as our own source of inspiration.
The River and the Thread covers sweeping territory and has a full, rich sound. You can hear influences of Southern gospel, country, Appalachian, rock, and Delta blues throughout. “If I never make another album I will be content, because I made this one,” Rosanne says. But, we know that she is always in search of another journey and another song.
Photos of Rosanne (wearing an Alabama Chanin dress) courtesy of Clay Patrick McBride.