Talkhouse Contributing Writer Peter Holsapple has sung and played guitar in the dB’s, Holsapple & Stamey, and Continental Drifters, as well as playing on albums and tours with R.E.M., Hootie and the Blowfish, Indigo Girls, and Nanci Griffith. He contributes to the New York Times‘ songwriter’s blog Measure for Measure, and has written pieces in several books on music. Peter is a charter member of Radio Free Song Club, a magnificent new songwriters’ collective. He considers himself among the luckiest people on earth.
We never knew how good we had it.
There was a more civilized time in the latter part of the 20th century when Rosanne Cash was a fixture on country radio. It was a time when she was in good company with Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs and John Anderson, standing side-by-side with old masters George Jones and Merle Haggard. She spoke from and to a new, young South that loved Faulkner almost as much as it loved Marshall Tucker and her dad. She was not afraid to let her smarts show in a genre that was proud of its plainspoken commonality. Even though she grew up in California and eventually relocated to New York, she retained a Southern sense of place like many of us do when we leave; it may show up in how a vowel is pronounced or what one calls a dish, but it is unmistakably from the South.
Damn if she didn’t have 11 #1 country songs.
It was a very good time for modern country music. Everyone seemed ready to push a little on the walls of tradition with a different kind of poetry in the lyrics, and Rosanne Cash always numbered among the finest practitioners of the craft. Her flawless ability to weave intricate stories using simple yet metaphorical language and still have hits with her records seemed anomalous somehow, and eventually her residence at the top of the charts ended. She continued to put out brilliant records like Interiors but it became evident that the type of country Rosanne was recording was no longer in vogue; the pickup truck, the six-pack of beer and the waving American flag supplanted the more oblique imagery she favored. It was as though the country audience suddenly became uncomfortable with the direction Rosanne had gone and retreated to music that didn’t require as much thought.
So she became something of a niche artist until the invention of the Americana genre, a deep and wide trough that encompasses “too country for country radio” as well as “too smart for country radio.” Rosanne’s album The List, which found her interpreting songs from her father’s comprehensive slate of important country songs, won the Americana Music Association’s Album of the Year award in 2010. But Americana doesn’t translate to sales or airplay any more than great reviews do.
It doesn’t matter to Rosanne Cash that she’s not having hits, I don’t think. We will have to assume that she’s recording for the sheer joy and release that the process offers. Surely it would be easy enough for her to lower her standards enough to get another smash again, but that’s probably not going to happen.
Instead, we get The River & the Thread, her debut album on Blue Note Records. This album is a collection of sterling story songs about Rosanne’s South, as seen through the rear-view mirror. It’s like a volume of short stories (she has published one of those), and it rolls easily from song to song. Thanks to the artist and her co-producing, guitar-playing husband John Leventhal, the album avoids the reverb-heavy swamp morass that’s become the favored style of production of “roots” records nowadays; there is clarity and distinction in the tone of the vocals and instruments, and the arrangements allow breathing room for the singer and her songs, with any aural kudzu pruned to keep from choking the music.
The sonic references to points south are woven in everywhere: the opening track “A Feather’s Not a Bird” has a simple octave string arrangement that recalls a Willie Mitchell Hi Records hit. There are brass ensemble parts in “When the Master Calls the Roll” which underline the poignancy of its story; they bring to mind the sound of the Moravian band early on an Easter morning, heading toward the sunrise service. And from the tremolo slide guitar that kicks the record off with “A Feather’s Not a Bird” to the sleepy Wurlitzer electric piano of “Money Road,” this is a veritable travelogue of Southern sounds working almost like an independent character, carefully accentuating the theme.
On a song like “Etta’s Tune” which tells the story of the relationship between Johnny’s longtime bassist Marshall Grant and his patient wife, the simplicity of the lines and story are the foundation of how a great writer works — make the words accessible enough so that anyone and everyone will know what you’re talking about and can appreciate your good story.
There are so many sonic apices on The River & the Thread, but “Night School,” a quiet waltz with a shimmering silvery string arrangement and a sensitive, undeniable hook, drew me in with its sophisticated chord progression.
Rosanne presents a South that I’ve seen, too. It’s like traveling on a train and passing through the smallest of towns, peering at the backs of houses by the track and wondering what sort of lives the occupants live. Some of those people are in the grooves of this record. Devoid of any stereotypical yee-haw Mason-Dixonisms, The River & the Thread relies on its realism, its alluring and smart lines delivered by Cash’s wise, earnest voice. These are stylish songs that celebrate a time and place that’s different from the one where Johnny Cash made his name.
This gorgeous album may make one long for those great old days when Rosanne Cash was omnipresent on the radio, before we knew that time would be over; for now, The River & the Thread can be our delicious little secret slide show.