At the heart of Rosanne Cash's Grammy winning 2014 album The River & The Thread sits a Civil War themed narrative titled When the Master Calls the Roll.
While the tune is as epically romantic as anything Cash has written in a recording career that stretches back nearly four decades, and as Southern accented as the other 10 original works making up The River & The Thread, it is also a wildly expansive family snapshot. It draws on inspiration from Cash's children for the song's construction, her ancestry for its characters, her husband (producer, arranger and guitarist John Leventhal) for its music and even her ex-husband (veteran country/Americana troubadour Rodney Crowell) for its recording.
"My son was doing a project on the Civil War and I showed him a picture of our ancestor William Cash on the Civil War database," Cash said via email last week. "My daughter Chelsea wrote a great Civil War song and I loved it and wanted to write one myself. I found Mary Ann Cash in my family history — 20 years old at the beginning of the war. It was all very compelling.
"John wrote this gorgeous melody that seemed to be in the tradition of those narrative folk ballads, so I asked Rodney to re-write the lyrics he had already written for the melody as a story about my ancestors. It was a powerful, almost overwhelming experience to write the song. The characters were alive."
Family, of course, plays an almost unavoidable role in Cash's personal and professional history. The eldest daughter of Johnny Cash, she has devoted her career to establishing a remarkable songwriting voice of her own. Though a champion of Nashville initially, she long ago cut ties with commercial country music for recordings of powerful personal reflection that included 1990's Interiors, 1993's The Wheel and 1996's severely underrated 10 Song Demo.
Her father's shadow was never far away, however. Cash addressed their relationship directly on 2006's Black Cadillac and devoted a follow-up covers album, 2009's The List, to compositions the elder Cash deemed "essential country songs."
In a way, her father also was a catalyst for The River & The Thread. After assisting in fundraising for Arkansas State University's purchase and restoration of Johnny Cash's childhood home, she and Leventhal journeyed throughout the South and gathered snapshots and inspirations for what would become her first album of new songs since Black Cadillac.
Among those she contacted along the way was Marshall Grant, the bassist for her father's early Tennessee Two band. His relationship with wife Etta formed the foundation for Etta's Tune, one of the most poignantly romantic songs on The River & The Thread.
"They don't figure just metaphorically in Etta's Tune," Cash said. "It's fairly documentary — the house on Nakomis Avenue in Memphis, the collection of artifacts from Marshall's years on the road.
"But it wasn't a reconnection. I'd stayed in touch with them my whole life and Marshall called me every six or eight weeks in the few years before he died to talk about the old days and go over all his memories. That's why I said (in the song) 'don't stare into the past.'"
Leventhal again designed a delicate musical fabric to support Cash's lyrics on the tune. While he has served as a vital contributor to his wife's recordings (mostly as a producer) and concert performances (as a guitarist) over the last two decades, The River & The Thread is a project where the two are on equal standing. Cash penned nearly all of the lyrics while Leventhal wrote, produced and arranged the music.
"This was a total collaboration," she said of the resulting recording. "We are good at very different things and brought our best selves to work. His great gifts in arrangement and melody writing really serve my lyrics and vice versa. I'm lucky to have found the perfect collaborator and get to sleep with him as well. For 20 years."
That brings us to the here and now. With the The River & The Thread now 15 months old, Cash is facing a milestone event next month — her 60th birthday. But that serves to underscore the greatest strength of her newer music — an emotional and narrative maturity that can only be attained through life experience.
"Not a sensitive subject," she said of her impending birthday. "It's a matter of public record, so no way I can avoid it.
"No, I couldn't have written these songs at 30. Life shows up in your writing and in your voice. Observation is keener; bittersweet becomes an overriding sentiment at times, awareness that time is limited, losses accumulate. They all become urgent topics.
My actual process is much the same, however — writing in spurts, lots of rumination.
"I feel ... settled, but still very curious."