"There were a lot of trips, and Memphis was the hub for a lot of them," Rosanne Cash says of the process that led to her new album, The River and the Thread, which is a record of a journey into interior and exterior places. "As a songwriter early on, I didn't do much collaborating. I was very territorial about it. But as I've gotten older, I want to collaborate more." Cash's current collaborator is her husband, John Leventhal, a Grammy-winning songwriter and producer.
"We took a trip straight down Highway 61 on John's birthday," Cash says. "It ended in New Orleans. All these trips were so inspiring. John wrote all of the music on this record. I wrote all the lyrics. I think I'm willing to let go more. I know what my strengths are, so I don't have any reservations about using someone else's strengths."
Cash is best known, in her own right, for her hits in the 1980s, starting with "Seven Year Ache" from 1981. Cash's newer work finds her expanding her creative horizon beyond her own experience. The River and the Thread reveals the arduous journey from writing about one's own experience to collaborating on songs that look to others' lives for inspiration. What led Cash, the eldest daughter of Johnny Cash, to open her eyes and her creative process to the world at large?
"I think age," Cash says. "You start looking out at the world instead of at your own belly button. Also, for this record, when we started writing the songs, John kept pushing me. He said, 'Don't just write about your feelings. You've got to put in more characters and places outside yourself. Write about other characters.' I felt a little self-conscious about writing real, third-person songs and second-person narratives until I wrote 'Etta's Tune.'"
That song stems from one of those trips to Memphis. In August 2011, Cash was in Jonesboro for a ceremony at Arkansas State University, which had preserved and restored her father's childhood home in Dyess Colony, a Depression-era federal program for poor families. While she was there, her father's lifelong bassist and friend Marshall Grant died from a stroke.
"I was in the hospital with the family the night he died," Cash says. "He came to rehearsal that day, and he had a brain aneurism that night. I was supposed to go back the next day, but I stayed with Etta [Grant's wife] until he died."
The experience had a profound effect on Cash's life and her work.
"John was really the first one who said, 'You know, there's something here. We can write about this,'" Cash says. "'Etta's Tune' was the first song we wrote, then 'Sunken Land.' The world kind of opened up. I felt like I could get into Marshall's head in a way. When we wrote 'When the Master Calls the Roll,' that was one of the most satisfying writing experiences of my life."
Cash is acutely tuned into her songwriting process and thankful to be working at all. In 2007, she faced her own mortality in her recovery from brain surgery.
"It was huge. It was so difficult," Cash says. "I think anyone who has had brain surgery, really invasive brain surgery, the recovery is so much longer than you think. You really have to think in years, not months. It's not just my writing. It affects everything: my whole perspective on this life. I didn't write for a while. I didn't perform for a while. But I regrouped, and I started writing prose again. It was difficult. It was difficult to feel enthusiastic about things again. Chronic pain just puts a veil over you. I feel really lucky that I have recovered. I have a better sense of importance and a stronger urgency to do the things I want to do. You get a good look at your mortality, and it gets your attention."
Cash's musical background literally led the way toward recovery: "Music itself is so healing. One way I recovered was to get out my old piano book from elementary school. I just taught myself a lot of the pieces."
Born in Memphis and raised in California, Cash now lives in New York. Her ties to the South have been strengthened through all of this, but she appreciates being able to see her birthplace with a critical eye:
"I had to — from the outside — put myself into how it felt from the inside looking out and look through the prism of that strange and beautiful Southern sensibility. It looks out at the world like nobody else. I don't think John and I could have written these songs if we lived in Mississippi or in Arkansas. I think distance and perspective are really important. It doesn't mean I love it any less. But the perspective is key. We're both so steeped in roots music and love it so much and always have. It's not like we woke up to the fact of how great it was and started borrowing from it. We really — and me personally — saw how powerful geography itself was in a person's DNA: that both of my parents were Southerners and that the connection is unbreakable. And how proud I am to have been born in Memphis. All of that is really overwhelming. John is a native New Yorker who has always loved country and Delta blues. It was like a kid in a candy store for him."
Cash has two dates to note in Memphis this week. On Friday, June 13th, she will speak at Cooper-Walker Place, formerly Galloway United Methodist Church, where Johnny Cash first performed with his band the Tennessee Two. The Tennessee Two consisted of Marshall Grant on bass and guitarist Luther Perkins, who died in 1968. Cash plays the Levitt Shell on Saturday, June 14th. The events are are sponsored by Christian Brothers University, the Visible Music College, and the Mike Curb Institute at Rhodes College.
Cash has only a couple of memories of her early childhood here.
"I remember being walked to a candy store by a big man," Cash says. "It must have been my father. I remember the woman who lived in the duplex on the other side, Pat, and how she rocked me. I went back with CBS Sunday Morning, back to Tutwiler Street. I had a picture of myself sitting on that porch at 18 months or 2 years old. It was the same place. The window grills behind me were the same. It was chilling to think how long life is and how we still exist. It's like time travel."