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A road trip through her Southern heritage inspires singer Rosanne Cash

Rosanne Cash
Rosanne Cash

The cover of Rosanne Cash’s latest album, “The River and the Thread,” is a portrait of her standing on the Tallahatchie River bridge in Money, Miss.

The bridge is famous for its role in the gothic ballad “Ode to Billy Joe.” The town is infamous as the place where Emmett Till, then 14, was murdered in 1955 for allegedly flirting with the white owner of Bryant’s Grocery, a building that still stands not far from the bridge. His murder became a rallying point for civil rights activists.

The portrait of Cash was taken by John Leventhal, Cash’s husband of 18 years, the producer of her past six albums and her collaborator on “The River.” The two were in Mississippi as part of a trip to celebrate Leventhal’s 60th birthday.

“John wanted to drive down Highway 61,” Cash said. “He’d never done that before. So we started out in Memphis, went to Mississippi, then circled back around to Highway 61.”

It was one of a few trips Cash took into the region of her birth, and the trips inspired the songs on “The River and the Thread,” an album about rediscovery. The catalyst was a project launched several years ago by Arkansas State University, which wanted to buy and restore the boyhood home of her father, Johnny Cash, in Dyess, Ark.

“I hesitate to say that was the initial inspiration for the album because some people will assume the record is about my father and will look at it through that prism,” she said.

“I was partly going to Arkansas to recollect how hard life was for my grandmother, raising seven children and picking cotton. She showed incredible resilience. As a modern woman, there’s no way I could do it. She was like another kind of human being.”

Cash would also visit the house on Tutwiler Street in Memphis where she was born. She would spend much of her girlhood in California, then leave the country to escape, among other things, the long shadow cast by her famous father. That pushing away from her upbringing and separation from her parents is reflected in the album.

“I think as you grow up, you want to push away your parents so you can figure out who you are,” she said. “I think I probably pushed harder because I knew I was a songwriter.

“I went to Europe to make my first record because I felt like I was not going to be able to get away from my dad’s shadow.

“So I figured I’d cross an ocean and see if that helped. I probably pushed away longer than necessary. I so wanted to do it on my own. There were so many constant references to my dad. There still are, but that’s normal.”

So she set out to reconnect with her past. During a trip to Arkansas in August 2011, Marshall Grant, the bassist in her father’s original band, the Tennessee Two, died in nearby Jonesboro. He was 83. Grant had been in Jonesboro for the Johnny Cash Festival, which raised money for the restoration of the Cash home in Dyess.

His death, Cash said, was a “real heart-opener,” and it inspired the love song “Etta’s Tune,” which pays tribute to Grant and his wife of 64 years.

Cash said other songs were inspired by other Southern travels, especially to Mississippi.

“John wrote a thesis on William Faulkner, so we visited his home in Oxford,” she said. “That alone would have been inspiring. We met a 94-year-old ceramic maker in Marigold and had lunch with him at Dockery Farms.

“We stopped at Robert Johnson’s grave, then the Tallahatchie Bridge, then Bryant’s Grocery.

“It was so powerful and shocking. Almost too much to process. All those places exist in this kind of haunted way. There are no signs; nothing is erased; it is as it was. It was so powerful.

“We could not have written songs while we were down there. There was so much emotional and spiritual and geographic information to process.”

But they would write songs that expressed her connection to that region, a deep and rich literary and musical heritage, a connection that is complex.

“I was born in Memphis, and I lived in Tennessee for several years,” she said. “Then I left. I have the perspective of an outsider, but I have a feeling of territoriality.

“Part of it was getting in touch with my own ancestral past, and part of it was about the music and how much John and I love the music. We also visited Muscle Shoals. We wanted to see where it all came from.”

Cash wrote nearly all the lyrics to the songs on “The River”; Leventhal wrote nearly all the music, which is as integral to the mood of the album as Cash’s evocative lyrics.

One of the album’s best songs is “The Sunken Lands,” which revisits her father’s boyhood and his mother’s life of hard labor.

“I have a friend I’ve known since childhood,” she said. “He calls me ‘dude.’ He said, ‘Dude, you need to write about the five cans of paint.’ It’s an apocryphal story in my family: My father’s first memory was of five cans of paint in the front room of his house.

“At first I resisted but then started thinking about it. And then I got down there and started thinking about my grandmother and that song started to take form.”

Of all the songs on this album, it’s the one she most wishes her father could hear.

“I wish so, so much he could hear it,” she said. “He would be so proud of that song. I somehow documented that part of the Earth where he came from.”

Cash is raising children of her own, including a “moody teenager,” and as much as she wrote these songs to reconcile with her ancestry and reconnect with her upbringing, she wrote them for her children, too.

“I think it’s a powerful thing for them to know what part of the Earth they’re connected to,” she said. “And to know that three generations ago, their ancestors were cotton farmers. But they’re young. I’m not sure they can take it all in at that age. I couldn’t. There needs to be more life lived and more pushing away before you can embrace that.”

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

FRIDAY

Rosanne Cash performs at 8 p.m. Friday at the Folly Theater, 1020 Central St. Tickets are $30 to $60. Go to FollyTheater.org.

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