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Rosanne Cash Interview: Grammy Winner Discusses the Musical Journey of Her New Album, ‘The River & the Thread’

Rosanne Cash
Clay Patrick McBride

Rosanne Cash‘s latest album, ‘The River & the Thread,’ is perhaps her most ambitious work to date.

The singer-songwriter worked with her husband, producer and musician John Leventhal, and a talented cast of characters that includes Rodney Crowell, Cory Chisel, Kris Kristofferson, Allison Moorer, Amy Helm, John Prine, the Civil Wars‘ John Paul White and Gabe Witcher from the Punch Brothers.

The result is a sprawling, masterful song cycle that touches on highly personal themes, but does so in a way that’s ultimately universal, couched in arrangements that are earthy and evocative. Despite the album’s decidedly non-commercial slant, it gave Cash her highest-ever debut on the Billboard 200 when it was released in January.

The Boot caught up with Cash recently to discuss the new album, its inspiration and underlying themes, the changes she’s seen in the music business and much more in a very wide-ranging interview.

This is a very ambitious project. Tell me about the roots of it and how it came to be.

It wasn’t a conscious thing that we said, ‘Okay, we’re going to write a record about the South, and take a lot of trips down there.’ It happened naturally. Arkansas State University called me because they were interested in purchasing and restoring my dad’s boyhood home in Dyess, Ark. And there’s a lot of Johnny Cash projects out there that I don’t get involved in — 99% — but this one was appealing to me. I thought it would be something that my dad would love, and I thought that my children should know about where their ancestors came from.

So I made some trips down there to participate in a fundraiser, and Marshall Grant — who was very close to me my whole life, and was one of the original Tennessee Two — he died on one of the first trips down there. I spent some time with his wife, Etta, who I’ve known my whole life, and she said that line that’s in ‘Etta’s Tune.’ She said, ‘You know, every morning of our lives, we woke up and said, “What’s the temperature, darling?”‘ And that’s the first song that John and I wrote.

At the same time I was going to Alabama to visit my friend, and she taught me to sew. And she said, ‘You have to love the thread.’ So I had that line in my mind as we traveled around the South. We took trips to the Delta, and it was pretty inspirational, I have to say. After the first couple of songs we wrote, we saw what we were doing.

That’s a very different way of working, as opposed to saying, ‘Let’s do a project with this theme.’

Yeah, and I think it made it better. I think the fact that it came about so naturally, and our hearts were so open to these situations, was a good place to start for making a record.

"My whole life, I’ve wanted to make a concept record."

Is it an easier thing, or a more difficult thing to write to a central theme, as opposed to just collecting songs and then deeming them an album?

I love concept records. I always have, since I was a kid. Albums that had an overarching theme were always the ones that were the most interesting and fascinating to me. My whole life, I’ve wanted to make a concept record, my whole career, and some of them I did were loosely conceptual, like ‘Interiors.’

‘Black Cadillac’ was a single theme, it was about mourning and loss. This is the one I’ve been working toward. It is one picture, one story.

That must make for a different writing process.

It was a different writing process in that John and I wrote the whole album together. It was the first total collaboration we’ve done, where he wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics. And someone said to me, after the record came out, ‘This is the sound of a marriage.’ And I was so moved by that, because it is to me, too. That we bring out the best in each other, that we played to each other’s strengths, that we tried to create something that was larger than the two of us. And that really is what marriage is. Lyrics and music [Laughs], to go totally symbolic on you.

You’ve obviously worked with a number of other producers and collaborators over time. When you work with someone you’re that close to, does it change the actual work process? Is it harder to accept criticism, or does that matter?

That’s a good question, and it is, because you’re so close to that person, and then they say something that’s critical and you take it personally, and it’s like, ‘You don’t love me anymore.’ [Laughs.] And we used to do that in the studio, but we’ve gotten so much better about, if we disagree, we’ve learned how to do it without falling into a fight about it, or taking it too personally. Not all of the time. [Laughs.] Most of the time.

Band and collaborative relationships are complicated enough, without bringing a more personal vibe into it.

Without turning it into pillow talk, right? [Laughs.]

We’ve seen a lot of change in the marketplace in recent years. Did you have any apprehension about whether there’s a place for an album like this in the current environment?

Of course. I mean, I just did the most unfashionable thing I could do, which is, I made a concept album. [Laughs.] And now the thinking is, people don’t even listen to albums, much less concept albums.

That’s a big, big, big subject about how low record sales are, and streaming and piracy, and what that does to musicians, and how are we going to survive, and how is the record industry going to survive — that’s a long conversation. But what’s interesting is that I was on Twitter when we were sequencing the album, and we were obsessing about the sequence. We did 40 sequences, and I said something on Twitter about, ‘Why am I bothering being obsessed about this? Nobody listens to albums in sequence anymore, anyway.’ If they do have the whole album, they put it on shuffle, right?

And I got a hundred responses: ‘I care about sequence. I care, I care, I care. I really care. Take your time with it. We want your sequence.’

That was so heartening. I realized, there are still people who listen to albums. Maybe they don’t dominate the market, but those are my people. [Laughs.]

I was thrilled to see how well this album has done. That’s got to speak to the fact that there are still people out there who want to hear that.

Yeah! My manager just told me today that we’re still at 70 percent physical sales. Shocking. I mean, it could just mean my audience is my age. [Laughs.] I still buy CDs. I just ordered one today. All the young kids I know are buying vinyl, so there’s a resurgence back to albums, I hope.

There’s quite a bit of debate on whether the radio market, the mainstream of music is less intelligent than it used to be. What’s your take on that?

There are so many more outlets, I don’t know how people can say that. Certainly there are some [projects] that are less intelligent, but there are some that are really well curated, and thoughtful, just like everything else. I mean, some people say, ‘Well, there are no good songwriters anymore.’ Well, certainly there are good songwriters. There are no more of those classic country, Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran type writers, really, but there are still fantastic songwriters out there. So as far as radio, you can find anything you want.

"If you Google an album, Google will send you to pirate sites on the first page. So something has to change."

Does the rise of digital as a primary marketing force hurt you more as an artist, or help more?

I don’t know. The votes are still out. Obviously this is the future, and it’s not gonna change, but as far as content providers, there’s this danger that content providers — music and writing — that we become this servant class that provides content for a pittance. [Laughs.] And people who wouldn’t think of stealing an apple in a grocery store will happily steal an album online without thinking of the ramifications of that. And I know a lot of musicians feel really de-valued, and I know young musicians who’ve had to get other jobs, who couldn’t survive. It’s heartbreaking, it’s just heartbreaking.

And some of these big, multi-billion-dollar companies are the worst offenders. If you Google an album, Google will send you to pirate sites on the first page. So something has to change. I don’t know how, but something has to change.

Do you think that people are willing to take music because there’s a widespread perception that the music business is easy money?

Oh my god. That’s a widespread perception? That’s shocking.

I can’t tell you how much harder we have to work now. I mean, I was talking to the head of marketing not long ago, and they’re thinking about lowering the number of records you have to sell to get a Gold album. It used to be 500,000, but so, so few people sell that many albums anymore. And he said, ‘You know, now we look at a record that sells 50,000 and get all excited. I used to lose 50,000 records!’ [Laughs.]

The other thing I’m involved with right now is this thing called Content Creators Coalition, and the first effort they have is to get artists paid for radio play. I don’t think most people realize that Aretha Franklin never got a dime for singing ‘Respect’ on the radio all of those millions of times we’ve heard it on the radio. She was never paid for that. The United States is one of few countries that don’t pay artists for radio play. So the misperceptions about it being easy money are so far from right that it’s laughable.

There are a lot of celebrity guests on your record. How did you go about deciding who to invite, and what role they were going to play?

We had one criteria, which was that we wanted everyone that was a guest to be from the South, or related to the South in some way. It didn’t make sense, as much as I love Elvis Costello, it didn’t make sense to ask him for this record.

And some of it, again, happened so naturally. When we were recording the backgrounds for ‘When the Master Calls the Roll,’ we were going to be in Nashville, and we were going to go out to Rodney’s studio, because we found out Kris was going to be in Nashville at the same time. So we asked him, ‘Do you want to come out to Rodney’s studio and just sing background on this?’

He said, ‘Yeah,’ and then Rodney said, ‘Well, you know, Prine lives in the neighborhood, and Tony Joe White’s not too far away. Should we ask them?’ So they came over, and that session that day was worth the whole song, just to see those gentlemen greet each other. Some of them hadn’t seen each other in a long time, and they treated each other like brothers. It was so sweet. And then it was really bottom-heavy with all those guys, so we asked Amy. [Laughs.]

You talked a bit earlier about working with your husband. This is working with your ex-husband. How does that work? That seems like a very enlightened approach.

[Laughs.] Well, you know, we worked long and hard to become friends, and we still respect each other a lot.

John and Rodney had actually written a song with that melody — different lyrics, but that melody — and they had written it for Emmylou [Harris]. She didn’t record it, and I asked Rodney if he would re-write the lyrics as a Civil War ballad with me. It was cool. He came over, we worked in my kitchen, and then we finished it by email.

"I’m aware, at my age, that this all has a shelf life … There’s no guarantees, and I realize that, and I’m grateful for my life, and that I get to do what I love most in the world."

How does it work, taking these kinds of songs that are of a certain character and deciding how you’re going to put them in a set list?

Interestingly, the shows we’ve been doing with full band, we’ve been doing with an intermission, and the first half of the show, we do the album in sequence. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and it’s so exciting. It creates a real mood. People go on the journey with you, and it has been received so well. I didn’t realize how cool it would be — to spend all that time sequencing it, and then to do it live like that, it’s amazing. And then we break and we do some of my catalog, my older stuff.

That’s challenging the audience quite a bit, to come on out and just lay it on them.

It is! That’s exactly right, because most of them haven’t heard the new record. But I gotta tell you, by the end of that first half, they’re on their feet. It’s pretty great.

What else have you got coming up around the album?

It’s an 18-month cycle; like I said, you’ve got to work longer and harder than before to get it out there. But I’m so committed to it, I’m so proud of it, and I’m aware, at my age, that this all has a shelf life. [Laughs.] I’ll never stop songwriting, but I’ve lost my voice twice already, and I take really good care of it, but there’s no guarantees, and I realize that, and I’m grateful for my life, and that I get to do what I love most in the world. That’s why I’m out there behind it.

Next: See Behind the Scenes of 'The River & the Thread'

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