"There's never any highway when you're looking for the past," Rosanne Cash sings over a slight but slinky groove at the start of her fascinating new album, The River & the Thread. Perhaps that's why the record, inspired by a view of the South that is personal and illusionary, boasts a snapshot of the singer peering over the Tallahatchie Bridge in Mississippi as its cover art.
The bridge's symbolism, intentional or not, is twofold. Like The River & the Thread, it represents a literary country music past (it's the focal point of Bobbie Gentry's 1967 hit Ode to Billie Joe) and a guidepost to the Tallahatchie River that runs through Mississippi, where the spirits of everything from the birth of the blues to the civil rights movement mingle.
Cash, a Memphis native, is seldom that literal or linear in the songs she wrote for the record with her husband, producer and guitarist John Leventhal. Nor do the Southern regions outlined in the music always seem accepting to the probing eyes of an outside world. "You're not from around here," she sings in World of Strange Design. "You're probably not our kind." Typically astute and intuitive slide-guitar colors from Derek Trucks accentuate the tune's wary tone.
But as is always the case with Cash's best music, there is abundant (though often unanticipated) warmth throughout The River & the Thread. Redemption comes calling through the Sunday airwaves ("a new old desire") during 50,000 Watts. That leads into the Civil War-era love story When the Master Calls the Roll, in which salvation is sought not only for a soldier killed by a cannon blast but for an entire embattled nation.
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Cash returns to the Tallahatchie on the album-closing song Money Road, a rolling blues-accented meditation in which salvation is meditated on in more personal but remote terms ("I was dreaming about the deepest blue, but what you seek is seeking you").
Such confessional and contemplative views are colored beautifully by Leventhal throughout the record, with melodies and production that sound like a blues-country séance. But Cash is the true adventurer here, exploring a South she seems so purposely removed from yet forever tied to. Her resulting journey makes for the first truly great record of 2014.