NEW YORK — John Hiatt once commanded us in song to Drive South. Rosanne Cash took him up on it.
Cash’s first collection of new compositions in seven years is inspired by trips south — by car, in her mind and into her own family history. “There’s never any highway when you’re looking for the past,” she sings as a mission statement in the opening minutes of her album, The River & The Thread.
Johnny Cash’s daughter was primarily raised in California and has been a New Yorker for more than two decades.
“I have some Southern sensibility, but it would be false to say I’m Southern at the core,” she said. “I don’t think I could have written the record if I was. It required some distance.”
An example is Money Road, a song born out of a birthday road trip for husband and producer John Leventhal, a William Faulkner fan who wanted to explore where the novelist grew up. The region is historically rich, the birthplace of bluesmen and the murder site of civil rights figure Emmett Till. The couple stopped and sat on the Tallahatchie Bridge, memorably cited in Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe, a song Cash has recorded and frequently sings in concert.
Cash is pictured from behind on the disc’s cover looking out at the Tallahatchie River.
The “thread” reference comes from the opening song A Feather’s Not a Bird courtesy of Cash’s friend and sewing teacher Natalie Chernin, who lives in Florence, Ala.
The disc’s lyrics are rich in Southern locales: Florence, the Tallahatchie Bridge, the James River in Virginia, Mobile, Ala.; Memphis, Tenn., Nashville, Arkansas. Cash spent time in Dyess, Ark., helping Arkansas State University restore the home where her father grew up as an historic site.
Cash believes her father would have loved the gesture, and the home provides a window into family history for her kids.
The song Etta’s Tune is about Marshall Grant, the bass player in Johnny’s band the Tennessee Three, and his wife. Cash was close to them and Marshall died while they were in Dyess to help raise funds for the restoration.
The Long Way Home is about the circuitous path many people take that leads back to their roots. Cash, 58, took it, too.