Cash comments on why her latest effort, “The River & The Thread,” is a marked departure from her earlier work.
Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash
Tavis: Rosanne Cash is one of this country’s finest singers and songwriters who has never been afraid, thankfully, to deal directly with deeply felt emotional upheavals and personal struggles.
This Grammy-winning artist now has a new CD out. Her first album of original songs in eight years now, titled “The River & The Thread.” We’ll start by taking a look at a cut from the CD, titled “Etta’s Tune.”
She’s performing here with her husband and collaborator on this album, John Leventhal.
Tavis: So you and John got a thing going on there. (Laughter) In life, love, work; he’s producing your projects, collaborating with you. How do you make all that work, when you spend that much time together?
Rosanne Cash: Well we do spend more time together than any other couple I know. (Laughter) But this record was a real collaboration. Somebody said to me, “This is the sound of a marriage, this record,” and that really moved me.
Because it was a total collaboration. We really like each other. We spend a lot of time together, and we get along pretty good.
Tavis: Yeah. I read –
Cash: Most of the time.
Tavis: Most time, yeah. Well, marriage ain’t easy.
Cash: Yeah, no kidding.
Tavis: Like I know. (Laughter) I’d better say that now before my mama calls me and says, “What were you talking about tonight?”
Cash: You read it in a book, though.
Tavis: “You don’t know nothing about that,” yeah. I read somewhere, in preparation for our conversation, where you said that if you never make another album, if you never make another album, you’re okay with that, you’re content with that, because you made this one.
That’s a strong endorsement for a project. Why do you feel so strongly about this one, “The River & The Thread?”
Cash: Well that statement will probably come back to bite me in the butt in a couple of years when I make another record.
Cash: But I feel like 30 years of songwriting has led to the songs. That I wrote them in a couple months plus 30 years, do you know what I mean?
Cash: It’s like you work hard to reach a level that you feel you’re at the top of your game, and I felt that we were both at the top of our game in making this record, and songwriting.
Also it’s the most old-fashioned thing I could do. I made a concept album. There’s a single narrative that goes through this album. They’re all songs about the South, the deep, dark, mystical, beautiful, strange South.
Tavis: I want to talk about that. What I heard you say when you said that “If I never make another album, I’m content with this.”
Tavis: That was an “if,” number one. Number two, we hope and pray and expect that you’re going to give us more good stuff in the years to come. But there must be some sense of – don’t want to put words in your mouth, but some sense of solitude and serenity, solemnity, about having done something that if you didn’t do anything else, you could live with this as your magnum opus.
Cash: I could.
Cash: I could. I think it defines me, this record, and I had thought that it was the end of something, the end of a trilogy of albums, from “Black Cadillac” to the “The List” and this –
Tavis: We’ll talk about that too, yeah.
Cash: Yeah, but in a way I feel that it’s the beginning of something. There’s a new way of writing for me, and, but I am content with it in that way that you just said, and I do feel complete in some way with it.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Cash: I’m not saying it nearly as well as you just said it, Tavis.
Tavis: No, no.
Cash: What you said.
Tavis: You’re the songwriter here, so trust me. (Laughter) Nothing I have ever said has become a lyric, so don’t –
Cash: It could.
Tavis: Don’t short yourself.
Cash: I’m taking notes.
Tavis: Don’t short yourself. Since you went there, I’ll follow you in, Rosanne. So the last three projects have, to my mind, as a fan and listener, have been about your life, your legacy, your world, and all the tentacles that come off of that.
How did this trilogy, including “The River & The Thread,” come to be? Why did you, how did you get yourself in that space?
Cash: Well “Black Cadillac” being, if we’re calling it a trilogy, being the first one, was also a concept record. It was about loss, mourning, kind of a map of grief. It wasn’t, that doesn’t mean it was depressing, but it really delved deeply into that.
Then “The List” was about gaining something, claiming a legacy. The list my father gave me of 100 songs. This one expands much further, I think.
Going back to the South, I was born in Memphis, but I was raised in California. I’ve lived in New York for 23 years. So I thought the South was just a footnote in who I was.
But going back in the last few years and seeing how deep that connection is to the people and the geography, not to mention that every roots musician owes something to the Delta and to Appalachia. So it was powerful to go back and connect with all of this.
Tavis: I listened to this song in that way, as a sort of – my word, not yours – but a sort of tribute to the Delta, in fact.
Cash: Yes, tribute –
Tavis: Too strong a word, maybe, but –
Cash: Maybe, because it does – there’s some mystery, and also there’s – Emmett Till is even in one song. Not directly, but on the song “Money Road,” he’s referenced.
Cash: So in that way it’s not necessarily a tribute to the greatness and beauty of the South, but the complexity of the South, definitely, because the violence is there, as well as the beauty and the music.
Tavis: Because that’s so expansive, this legacy of the South, because that’s so expansive, how do you treat that artistically on a project?
Cash: Right. Well now this is where John comes in, because he wrote all the music and I wrote all the lyrics, and he’s so well-versed in Southern music, blues and Appalachia and gospel and country-pop and all of that he has at his fingertips.
So it felt like we nodded to all those forms without directly bowing to them or mimicking them, and you can’t separate the lyrics from that music, so I think that’s the true statement, is to not tear them apart, but –
Tavis: I love the fact that you included all of that, including the gospel thing.
Cash: In a way – that’s funny. There’s a song on there called “Tell Heaven,” but neither John nor I are traditionally religious. So we wanted to write a gospel song that agnostics would love. (Laughter)
Tavis: Go figure.
Cash: Go figure. All-inclusive, you know what I mean?
Tavis: Nothing wrong with that.
Cash: Well, include everyone. It’s really about the common longing that we all have for something to take the burden for a couple hours.
Tavis: Yeah. For those who will wish that I had asked this question, let me ask now – why the title “The River & The Thread.”
Cash: Well both metaphor and real. The Mississippi River, obviously, is the part of the world we’re talking about. And the thread because I have a friend in Florence, Alabama, and I was going down to see her at the same time we were making these trips to the Delta and writing these songs.
She taught me to sew, and she makes these beautiful garments. It’s called – Alabama Chanin is her company. As she was –
Tavis: – this is her work here?
Cash: Yeah, this is her work.
Tavis: That’s a beautiful shirt. Yeah, I like that.
Cash: As she was threading my needle, she said, “You have to love the thread,” and I got tears in my eyes. It just moved me so much. She wasn’t speaking in metaphors, but I heard it that way, that thread of your past and your family and your geography.
Tavis: You have to love the thread.
Cash: You have to love it.
Tavis: Yeah, that is a powerful –
Tavis: See, I don’t speak in lyrics. Your friend does. (Laughter) Do you love the thread of your life?
Cash: I do.
Tavis: Have you come to love the thread? How did you come to love the thread?
Cash: That’s a big question.
Tavis: I got time, this is PBS. (Laughter) Yeah.
Cash: That’s a big question. I do love the thread. I think when you’re young, you’re so invested in pushing away, finding out who you are apart from your past and your family and your geography.
In middle age, I want to know what all of that is, even the parts that seem foreign or uncomfortable to me. I want to know what it all is. If I don’t know what it is, my children won’t know what it is. That part of me.
I’m a New Yorker for 23 years, my son is a fifth-generation New Yorker on John’s side, and yet two generations back we were cotton farmers. That’s important for him to know, it’s important for me to know.
Tavis: How do you think or hope the understanding, the appreciation, and the embrace of that thread, how do you think and hope that that will impact their lives?
Cash: I don’t know that they can take it in fully now, because they’re young; but by my age I hope they know that they are connected to these generations in back of them, and that my grandmother, who picked cotton, no electricity, raised seven kids.
That she did all that so that they could have the life they have, these privileged lives. I want them to know that. I want them to be connected to the music. The music is like religion to me. I want them to know about roots music. This is part of being American to me.
Tavis: It seems to me, as I’m listening to you, Rosanne, that there are at least three types of people where this notion of thread is concerned, and legacy. We all have a thread and we all have a legacy.
Some of us know that; group number one, people who have really done the research to know what their roots are.
Tavis: Number two, those of us who don’t know that and haven’t taken the time to really dig into those roots. But number three, the group that you’re in that everybody reads and knows about your roots and your legacy and your thread – not long ago, Robert Hilburn was on this program with his book about –
Cash: Oh yeah, the book, yeah.
Tavis: – about your dad, “New York Times” best-selling book about your dad. How have you processed over the years and how are you feeling about this at your age now that your thread is a thread that we can all see, whether you want us to see it or know it or not? It’s all there. People write about it, they make movies about it, they do miniseries about it.
Cash: Well that’s something, you know? They all have their version of the thread. The movie and the books and everything is the version, kind of through a prism of sometimes what they want to see, other people.
My version of it is real to me. It’s part of my map of my soul, and I know how it feels to me. I let other people have their versions.
Tavis: Another great phrase, you should write that down. That’s a lyric. “The map of my soul.”
Cash: I’m going to write that down. (Laughter)
Tavis: You’re killing me with these one-liners, Rosanne. You write lyrics even as you sit here. Is the way that you have mapped out your soul, is it taking you, taking you to where you want it to take you?
Is this life unfolding the way you thought it might at this point? We get to be a certain age, we got a little something in the rearview mirror, and we can start to assess whether or not the map that we’ve laid out for ourselves, whether or not it’s taking us in the direction we really want to go in.
Cash: I don’t want to get too grand and too navel-gazing about this, but, and sometimes I feel like I’m living backwards. I’m happier now –
Tavis: Like Benjamin Buttons?
Cash: Yeah. (Laughter) I’m happier than I was at 25. I’m doing better work, I think. I feel younger than I did. I think I – to get it down to brass tacks, I love being a wife and a mother and a songwriter and a musician and playing music, and I feel like the luckiest person in the world to have those things.
Tavis: I guess if our journey, if the map of our soul takes us where we want to go, the hope and prayer is that we all get better at whatever our vocation, our craft, our calling and purpose is. We all want to get better.
I hope – I hope; I may not be – I hope I’m a better talk show host now than I was 25 years ago.
Cash: Sure you are, yeah.
Tavis: So you want to get better at it. What lets you know that you are getting better at your craft, because for people who are fans of yours, they’ve always liked you? But what lets you know that you’re getting better at this thing?
Cash: That’s an interesting concept. I have a friend who says, “There is no artistic progress, there are only phases and stages of an artist’s life.” I always argue with him, saying, “No, I really believe in progress. I know I’ve gotten better.”
Tavis: Stop. I want to – now you’ve got me really – I’m pulled in now. So unpack the rationale for your friend’s argument before you give me your argument. What’s that argument based on, that there are just stages and phases, but not real growth? What’s the argument based on?
Cash: Well I think he’s looking at somebody like Matisse, who starts out representational, moves into impressionism, and then at the end of his life he’s painting the jazz dancers.
They’re all equally valuable, right, and they just may appeal to different audiences. But there’s no progress, but if you were Matisse, would you feel like you were making progress? I think he probably did. Like he just keeps opening more and more. This subject really fascinates me, I’m glad we’re talking about this.
Tavis: That’s why I’m asking. So what’s your argument when your friend, what’s your counterargument to your friend’s notion?
Cash: Well okay, my counterargument is that your work ethic develops, that it strengthens. If you keep showing up for work, that the discipline and your skill set gets honed so that you can really allow your instincts and inspiration to come through, and it’ll fall into a skill set that you didn’t have when you were 25.
That to me is progress. Just experience – Ray Charles said, “You’re a better singer at 50 than you are at 25, because your life shows up in your voice at 50.” A whole life, a long life. I feel that about songwriting. To me, that’s progress.
Tavis: See I’m glad you said that, because I was just about to ask, and leave it to Ray Charles to have already answered the question before I ever got there. That’s Ray’s brilliance, though.
Tavis: Because I was just about to ask whether or not you’re getting better, whether this progress is born of just continuing to write more and perfect your craft, or whether it’s born of living more life, and you’ve already answered the question.
Cash: You can’t separate them. I think it’s both.
Tavis: What makes – impossible question, but I’ve asked it of other artists, but I’ve never asked this – I looked at the transcript of our conversation the other day.
Cash: You did? Now that’s some research. (Laughter)
Tavis: I said, “You know what? I did not ask Rosanne this question,” which is, what makes a great song for you? I’ve asked it of some great songwriters, Smokey Robinson and others. But what makes a great song for you?
Cash: There’s something that’s not quantifiable about that, because songwriting isn’t factory-made. There’s an element of mystery and there’s an element of tapping into some source that has a tingle to it and a beauty that you can’t put your finger on.
In the same way you could stand in front of a great painting and say, “Well look how she used blue there and that line is perfect,” but there’s something that moves you that makes it great.
Kris Kristofferson said that, “A great song is three chords and the truth.” (Laughter)
Tavis: That’s a great line.
Cash: Yeah, so I’ll go with that.
Tavis: Yeah, you can’t argue with Kristofferson.
Cash: No. (Laughter)
Tavis: That is a great answer, I never heard that. That’s a great, that’s a great –
Cash: Yeah. Yeah, I’m going to stick with that one.
Tavis: Yeah, you stick with that, yeah. (Laughter) That’ll work. You have said, by my count, at least a couple times in this conversation, Rosanne, how much you love being a mother, and I take that and I respect that, and that’s a beautiful thing. How has being a mother impacted your work?
Cash: Peripherally, because – in a few ways. Kids don’t want to deal with your ego, they want the real you 24/7. So I think getting used to the real you showing up 24/7 helps you as an artist, as a songwriter.
Tavis: Is that hard for an artist to do, though, to get to a place where you give your authentic self – when you’re a star and everywhere you go people are throwing roses at your feet, and you’re selling out concert halls and they get enough of you, and your records are on the charts and everything, how do you give your authentic, egoless self to your kids on a regular basis?
Cash: Well that’s what’s, that’s the part that’s so powerful, is like if you can really show up there, your authentic self, you can take that into the rest of your life. But also just the beauty and the love of children and how it opens your heart, and once your heart’s open you know you don’t keep this part closed up; it’s open to everything, all kinds of inspiration.
Just on a practical level, I’ve learned how to write in spurts wherever I am. If I was busy with them and they wanted the pen I was using, you kind of can go in and out.
Tavis: Tell me what makes you so happy, so content, the word you used earlier, with the lyrical content on this project.
Cash: John pushed me to write more third-person narratives than I was used to writing. I was used to writing from a pretty personal point of view. I wouldn’t say confessional, because that sounds kind of icky, but personal.
He said, “For this record, let’s go into these characters and this geography. You write more third-person narratives.” So I was a little daunted by it at first, and felt a little self-conscious about creating fully formed characters, or trying to, in a song.
Once I got into it, I was just so excited and thrilled to do that. One song on there is about Marshall and Etta Grant, “Etta’s Tune” that you played earlier, yeah.
Tavis: I played, sure.
Cash: Marshall was my dad’s original bass player in the Tennessee Two, and he was married to Etta for 65 years. So that song is their song. Then another song, a Civil War ballad that I wrote with John and my ex-husband Rodney Crowell, the three of us.
Tavis: That sounds like fun.
Cash: Yeah, it was very evolved, very evolved – (laughter) – is a Civil War ballad based on my own ancestors. So it’s kind of like those, in the tradition of Appalachian ballads.
Tavis: This is a personal question, but given the way you have written your music in the past and what you’ve just said, I know that I can ask this question of you and you know that I’m not being disrespectful, because I think there’s something there.
What do you make of the fact, because there’s so many people that can’t – I laughed when you said it, but there’s so many people that can’t be in the same state, much less the same city, much less the same room, with an ex, and the three of you are working on a project together. What’s the trick to making those relationships last even when they take a different form?
Cash: Well when Rodney and I split there was certainly acrimony. You get divorced for a reason, and there’s problems. But he was the father of some of my children, and I thought I don’t want to make this more difficult for my kids.
I’m going to work on this and have a friendship with him so that my kids can feel at ease about it and enjoy it, and it did. We took a few years to become friends again, but I also figured you love someone once, there’s a reason you love them. You could stay in touch with that.
Tavis: The transition, the transformation that you had to make from writing in first person to third person; obviously you pulled it off and did it remarkably well. Does that mean that you’re going to stay in third person? (Laughter) Does that mean that all the stuff that we have heard from you about what you’re going through is a thing of the past now?
Cash: I don’t know. You know, Tavis, if I knew what was going to happen, I don’t know what would happen with my life. But I think with songwriting, you don’t quite know what’s going to happen.
It’s like that saying about writing a novel is like driving a car at night – you only see as far as the headlights go.
Cash: Songwriting is like that as well.
Tavis: See, everything you say is quotable. (Laughter)
Cash: No, I stole that quote.
Tavis: Yeah, it’s a good one, though
Cash: I think E. L. Doctorow said that.
Tavis: Yeah, it’s a good one – he had a bunch of them.
Cash: He had a bunch of them. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, a bunch of them, and you got a bunch of hits. (Laughter) And a bunch of great records, and there’s a new one out. It’s called “The River & The Thread,” by Rosanne Cash. It really is a wonderful piece of work, and there is a thread that runs through it.
It’s a project that – which you don’t get a lot of these, these days, where you can put it on and track one through track 11 flows, makes sense, and just sticks.
Cash: Thank you.
Tavis: So you done good.
Cash: Thank you.
Tavis: You done good, and we’re glad to have you back.
Cash: Thanks, Tavis.
Tavis: Have a great – you’re on tour this summer, I assume, everywhere?
Cash: Yes, sir.
Tavis: You’re always on the road, though. That never stops.
Cash: Well, in and out a little bit. I have a teenager at home, so I keep it to manageable bits.
Tavis: Yeah. But folk will hear you do this stuff this summer?
Cash: Yeah, exactly.
Tavis: Good. Good to have you back.
Cash: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Hey, Tavis, congratulations on getting your star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Don Cheadle: Tavis, congratulations. You’re finally getting your star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood. I’ve been telling people for years that you deserve to have your feet in cement.
Kenny Loggins: Hey, Tavis, congratulations on getting your star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Good job.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
[Walmart sponsor ad]
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.