She stood on the Tallahatchie Bridge, gazing at the muddy water made famous in the hit song “Ode to Billie Joe.” And, unbeknown to Rosanne Cash, her husband snapped a photo of her.
It became the cover shot of her new album, “The River & the Thread,” a deep rumination and elegant rhapsody on the South, set to various strains of American music. It’s not only one of Cash’s finest albums, but one of the best albums of 2014.
“We were in Memphis and Arkansas and Alabama and we kept getting struck by these deep experiences. It was a perfect storm of inspiration,” said the Memphis-born, California-raised Cash, who performs in three Minnesota cities this week.
The Southern sojourn started with an invitation from Arkansas State University to help raise funds to restore the boyhood home of her father, Johnny Cash. Then came the death in 2011 of Johnny’s longtime bassist Marshall Grant; sewing lessons that Rosanne took from a friend in Florence, Ala., and the desire of her husband, John Leventhal, to travel Hwy. 61.
In short, wife and husband explored her Southern roots — personally and musically.
For much of her career, Cash, 59, has tried to avoid being viewed as the firstborn child of an American musical giant. Now, “The River & the Thread” is the third consecutive album in which she has celebrated her legacy, starting with 2006’s “Black Cadillac” (which reflected on the death of her parents) and 2010’s “The List” (covers of essential American songs recommended by her father).
“I spent decades getting away from legacy and taking lot of excursions to find out who I’m not, experimenting, trying different things,” she said recently from her New York City home. “Like a lot of people in mid-life, you want to know what you’re connected to, who your people are, where they come from, backwards and forwards. You want your children to know who their people are and that two generations back we were cotton farmers. All that becomes important.”
On her trips to the South over two years or so, Cash discovered not only a sense of Southern pride but “a richness, a denseness, a strangeness and a sense of beauty to it all.” Said the singer-songwriter: “I don’t think John and I could have written these songs had we lived in Mississippi. These songs require distance and perspective.”
These songs — from the snappy “Modern Blue” to the Civil War-inspired “When the Master Calls the Roll,” written with both Leventhal and her first husband, Rodney Crowell — are the focus of her tour. In Winona, Minn., she will perform as a duo with her husband/guitarist/producer/songwriter. In St. Paul and St. Joseph, she will be joined by a band that includes Leventhal.
In concert, Cash probably will tell the story of visiting her dad’s historic house in Dyess, Ark. The restored building was opened to the public this month.
“The house is identical as it was in 1935. My Aunt Joanne, who was born in the house, had practically a photographic memory and she was the chief consultant,” Cash said. “They got the right linoleum and the right furniture, the right pots and pans, and stove. It really is like time travel. It was very moving to think about your parent as a child and to see how they grew up.”
No need to cure ‘Ache’
In the 1980s, Cash scored 11 No. 1 country hits, including “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train” and a remake of her dad’s “Tennessee Flat Top Box.” Although she’s not on commercial radio these days, she still wins acclaim. She’s been nominated for three Americana Music Association Awards — including album and artist of the year —to be presented Sept. 17, and she will receive the performing arts prize on Oct. 16 at Smithsonian Magazine’s American Ingenuity Awards.
Cash is probably best known for her signature hit “Seven Year Ache,” the one oldie she invariably sings in concert.
“I had to lower the key after 35 years,” she said with a giggle. “It’s precious to me. I don’t understand people who have big hits and say ‘I’m sick of playing that.’ I’m very proud of that song.
“A 23-year-old girl wrote it, probably because of a fight she had on the street with her new husband. And partly because I was listening to Rickie Lee Jones and I was thinking there are no street songs in country music that I can think of. It’s been a long time, and I’m not that young girl anymore. There’s a freedom in singing it from the perspective of a few decades.”
A newer song in her stage repertoire is Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.” Has that one changed now that she’s stood on the Tallahatchie Bridge?
“I picture that bridge in my mind,” she said. “I used to picture this grand structure, but now it’s just a little bridge. It’s quiet and kind of haunted.”
Like a lot of her new Southern-soaked songs.