Music
3:47 am
Mon January 13, 2014

Rosanne Cash's Mythic Southern Road Trip

Originally published on Tue January 14, 2014 8:06 am

Let's take a musical road trip through the American South. Think of yourself crowded into the back of the car, next to the guitar case. The driver is Rosanne Cash, whose new album was inspired by her Southern travels in the Mississippi Valley.

The album is called The River & the Thread. The travels that produced it began when Rosanne Cash visited the Arkansas home where her father, Johnny Cash, grew up during the Great Depression.

"It was part of a New Deal-era project, built in 1935: 500 cottages, with 40 acres and a mule to each cottage," she tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "And the Cash family was desperately poor to save their life."

Rosanne Cash traveled beyond her father's boyhood home, to Nashville and to Florence, Ala. In a single short drive in Mississippi, she encountered the grave of bluesman Robert Johnson, the place where Emmett Till was murdered during the civil rights era, and the Tallahatchie Bridge, which inspired a legendary song.

Cash, who was born in Memphis, says she finds the mythic quality of the South consuming. That's part of the reason why she has experienced it mostly as a visitor rather than a resident.

"The things you push away the hardest when you're young, you end up embracing when you get older," she says. "I just thought it was too claustrophobic; I had to get away. Now, seeing the richness of it, the beauty, the connectedness, you know, it's amazing. It moves me to tears when I think about it. And the fact that these songs came from it — it's been the greatest gift of my life, besides my children."

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Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's take a musical road trip through the American South. Think of yourself crowded into the back of the car, next to the guitar case. The driver is Rosanne Cash, whose new album was inspired by her Southern travels in the Mississippi Valley.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A FEATHER'S NOT A BIRD")

ROSEANN CASH: (Singing) I'm going down to Florence going to wear a pretty dress. Sit on top the magic wall with the voices in my head...

INSKEEP: Her album is called "The River and the Thread." The travels that produced it began when Rosanne Cash visited the Arkansas home where her father Johnny Cash grew up during the Great Depression.

CASH: It was part of a New Deal project, built in 1935: 500 cottages, with 40 acres and a mule to each cottage. And the Cash family was desperately poor - just saved their life.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to picture it. I'm assuming it was, you know, reasonably well-built but extremely simple. Was that...

CASH: Extremely simple, small but brand new. My dad said his first memory - at three years old, moving into that house - was there were five cans of paint sitting in the front of his freshly-painted new home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SUNKEN LANDS")

CASH: (Singing) Five cans of paint in the empty fields. The dust reveals. The children cry, the work never ends. There's not a single friend...

INSKEEP: How many rooms were in that house?

CASH: Maybe four.

INSKEEP: And how big was the family?

CASH: Seven children.

INSKEEP: Ouch.

CASH: Yeah. My grandmother, you know, the work was so hard it was almost medieval.

(LAUGHTER)

CASH: She raised seven children. She picked cotton. She cooked on a hot stove, you know, in 100-degree temperature. It was a hard life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SUNKEN LANDS")

CASH: (Singing) The mud and tears melt the cotton balls. It's a heavy toll. Whoa-oh...

INSKEEP: Rosanne Cash traveled beyond her father's boyhood home to Nashville and to Florence, Alabama. In a single short drive in Mississippi, she encountered the grave of bluesman Robert Johnson, the place where Emmett Till was murdered during the Civil Rights Era, and the Tallahatchie Bridge, which inspired a legendary song.

CASH: There's a mythic quality to that part of the South. You know, it's so dense - the music and literature that came out of it. I mean we met a 90-something-year-old man in Marigold, Mississippi, who knew Bill and Estelle Faulkner. And who said Eudora was a lovely woman.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Not William Faulkner, Bill.

CASH: Bill. So, you know, the past is alive in these places.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORLD OF STRANGE DESIGN")

CASH: (Singing) Well, you're not from around here. You're probably not our kind. It's hot from March to Christmas and other things you'll find won't fit your old ideas...

The South can be all-consuming.

INSKEEP: So consuming that Rosanne Cash said she had to leave the south to actually write her songs. She needed to gain perspective on what she saw and felt.

CASH: I don't think I could've written some of these songs if I'd lived in Money, Mississippi.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORLD OF STRANGE DESIGN")

CASH: (Singing) If Jesus came from Mississippi, if tears began to run, I'll have to go back to the beginning in this world of strange design...

INSKEEP: Now, there is a song on this album called "Master Calls the Roll."

CASH: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...I want to ask you about - but first lets listen to a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE MASTER CALLS THE ROLL")

CASH: (Singing) Oh my darling, Marry Anne? The march to war is calling. Somewhere far across these Southern lands, the bands of brothers falling...

INSKEEP: What's happening in that song?

CASH: My son, who was in eighth grade last year, was studying the Civil War. And I said to him, you know, you have Cash ancestors on both sides. And I went on the Civil War database to show him and this picture came up of William Cash. He was a Union soldier from a Massachusetts regiment. I got taken with him. I looked up in our own genealogy for a woman who might have been around 20 years old at the start of the Civil War, and I found Marry Anne Cash.

INSKEEP: Hmm.

CASH: So I put them together.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE MASTER CALLS THE ROLL")

CASH: (Singing) Girl with hair of flaming red, seeking perfect lover...

There's a personals ad that begins the song that is a real 19th century personals ad that says: Girl with hair flaming red. You know, she's seeing a partner. And...

INSKEEP: Wow.

CASH: ...you know, I have flaming red hair so that was even doubly great.

(LAUGHTER)

CASH: And then, you know, they wed. Then in the middle of the song he has to leave her as he goes off to war, because there are bands of brothers falling. And then, of course, he has to die in the end. And the only way he returns to Virginia is to buried.

INSKEEP: Even though it's made up, it's moving to hear you say that.

CASH: I don't know that it's made up, to tell you the truth. There were women Cashes who died in the war. And there were women Cashes who never married after the Civil War, so you have to think they lost their lover.

INSKEEP: Hmm.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE MASTER CALLS THE ROLL")

CASH: (Singing) Know the season may come. Know the season may go. When love is joined together with whoever be made whole, when the master calls the roll...

The things you push away the hardest when you're young, you end up embracing when you get older.

INSKEEP: What have been some of those things for you?

CASH: Well, Tennessee, you know, in a large sense, and the South in an even larger sense. Like, I just thought it was too claustrophobic - I had to get away. Now, seeing the richness of it, the beauty, the connectedness, you know, it's amazing. It moves me to tears when I think about it. And the fact that these songs came from it - ah, it's been the greatest gift of my life, besides my children.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Roseann Cash, thanks very much.

CASH: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE MASTER CALLS THE ROLL")

CASH: (Singing) Though the storm clouds gather, let the union be made whole...

INSKEEP: The new album by Roseann Cash is called "The River and the Thread."

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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