Country star Cash, sittin’ pretty. (Photo: Clay Patrick McBride)
Rosanne Cash was starting to hate Nashville.
“It’s become a company town, really,” says the Memphis-born, California-raised Cash, 58, who has lived in New York City for more than 20 years. “I’d go back there and my stomach would tighten up as soon as I got off the plane. It just felt claustrophobic.”
As the eldest daughter of the Man in Black — and with a hugely successful career herself, rooted in the sounds that Johnny Cash helped define — that may come as a surprise, if not sacrilege. She’s practically royalty in the American south.
But through struggle comes grace; and for musicians, an album.
Her latest, The River and the Thread, was born out of road trips through the region with her husband/producer, John Leventhal. A revelatory experience at the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009 inspired her to make peace with the land of her ancestors. And the reviews have been ecstatic.
“When you’re in a long-term romantic relationship, the middle part can get really rocky, but if you stick with it, you can come out the side and find a deeper love,” she explains. “That’s what it felt like with Nashville.”
"This record is about reconnecting with all those people and places in the South,” she continues, “Just feeling cracked open in the South, which I had tried to push away for so long.”
Here’s where she went:
Her travels began when Arkansas State University bought  her father’s boyhood home — the Historic Dyess Colony — in Dyess, Arkansas; she organized a series of benefit concerts to help pay for the extensive, necessary renovations. (A grand opening is scheduled August 16, 2014 with by-appointment group tours till then.)
Cash family on front porch. (Photo: Historic Dyess Colony)
While traveling back and forth via Memphis, she also became friendly with a celebrated seamstress named Natalie Chanin, whose company in  Alabama Chanin in Florence, AL, creates hand-sewn dresses. Trips to visit Chanin also meant stopping off across the river to see the legendary music studios in nearby  Muscle Shoals (the site of numerous classic soul sessions and the subject of a recent acclaimed documentary).
On another excursion, they paid their respects to author  William Faulkner’s house in Oxford, Mississippi. A sign for  radio station WDIA in Memphis — “50,000 Watts of Good Will” — led to the song “50,000 Watts.” She sings about her grandmother, Carrie Cash, on “Sunken Lands,” named for the agriculturally-challenged region in  Northeast Arkansas where her father grew up.
(Photo: Thomas Hawk/Flickr)
Perhaps the most pivotal journey for the making of The River and the Thread, though, was a swing by Greenwood, Mississippi, to find the grave —  one of three — of the fabled blues singer Robert Johnson. Cash and Leventhal discovered that, just a few miles away, is  Money Road, where young Emmett Till was murdered in 1955, a crucial moment in the birth of the civil rights movement. And right around the corner from there is the  Tallahatchie Bridge, the setting for Bobbie Gentry’s mysterious, haunting 1967 hit “Ode to Billie Joe.” (The album’s cover photo, snapped by Leventhal, is a shot of Cash on a new highway bridge, taking in the remains of the old one.)
“You can’t believe it,” says Cash, who wrote the song “Money Road” based on this visit. “It’s like a revolutionary musical vortex.”
(Photo: Joseph A./Flickr)
The couple went on to  Dockery Farms, the plantation where blues giants Charley Patton and Howlin’ Wolf worked and made music, and then followed the Mississippi Blues Trail down from Natchez, stopping off at  B.B. King’s childhood home in Berclair before winding up in New Orleans where, as a birthday present to Leventhal, they played a show at the beloved club  Tipitina’s.
(Photo: Infrogmation of New Orleans/Flickr)
All of these experiences inform the moving, intimate, resonant songs on The River and the Thread, which the Los Angeles Times called “an album we’ll be looking at in December when it’s time to single out the most powerful works of 2014.”
For Cash, of course, who sings “A river runs through me” during the album’s opening salvo, the new project is more than just a satisfying recording — it’s a dramatic reaffirmation of her family legacy and her roots in the American south.