DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Rosanne Cash's new album "The River & the Thread" is her first record of original material since her 2006 recording "Black Cadillac." It's based on a series of trips she took in recent years throughout the South. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
ROSANNE CASH: (singing) I'm going down to Florence, going to wear a pretty dress. I'll sit atop the magic wall with the voices in my head. Then drive on through to Memphis, past the strongest shows. Then on to Arkansas just to touch the gumbo soul. A feather's not a bird. The rain is not the sea. The stone is not a mountain but a river runs through me.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: For the past two decades, Rosanne Cash has lived with her family in Manhattan, but in 2008, she was asked if she wanted to help with a project to restore the childhood home of her father, Johnny Cash, in the small town of Dyess, Arkansas. She agreed and went down there to do some fundraising.
And in the process, she and her husband, producer-songwriter-guitarist John Leventhal, took some car trips throughout the South, soaking up history and music. The creative result is "The River & The Thread," an album that works as a travelogue, a series of vivid history lessons, a memory piece.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORLD OF STRANGE DESIGN")
CASH: (singing) Well, you're not from around here, probably not our kind. It's hot from March to Christmas and other things you'll find won't fit your old ideas. You'll learn on shifting sands. Walk across a ghostly bridge to a crumbling promised land. If Jesus came from Mississippi, if tears began run, I guess I'll start at the beginning. It's a world of strange design.
TUCKER: Throughout this album, Cash and Leventhal - she wrote most of the lyrics, while he wrote most of the music - have found canny mixtures of country, folk, rock, pop and even jazz to create atmospheric songs about things they saw and remarks they overheard.
One of the album's most striking compositions is "Money Road." It's a road in Mississippi where, within the space of a few miles can be located three important cultural occurrences: the site of what is now considered the grave of blues innovator Robert Johnson; the grocery store in which the black youth Emmett Till flirted with a white woman and was hung for that transgression in 1955; and the Tallahatchie Bridge, the site of "Ode to Billie Joe," Bobbie Gentry's 1967 hit about two lovers who drop something forever mysterious off that bridge.
The result is an eerie, evocative piece of music that braids all these strands together.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONEY ROAD")
CASH: (singing) I was dreaming about the Tallahatchie Bridge. A thousand miles from where we lived. But the long line at the pearly gate, the keepers of our fate, none of them will congregate out on Money Road.
TUCKER: All is not spooky ominousness, to be sure. The album is filled with lovely melodies and vocal performances that match anything Cash recorded at the height of her 1980s fame on hits like "Seven Year Ache." Take, for example, the beautiful song "50,000 Watts," a kind of gospel song with a shuffle beat.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "50,000 WATTS")
CASH: (singing) It's a hard road but it fits your shoes. Son of rhythm and brother of the blues. The sound of darkness, the pull of the oak. Everything is broken and painted in smoke. But there's a light on Sunday, a new old desire, the sound of the whistle across the radio wires. Love and your future await for you there. Fifty thousand watts of common prayer. Fifty thousand watts of common prayer. Fifty thousand watts of common prayer.
TUCKER: One of the recurring themes of "The River & The Thread" is the notion that music can be a repository for history, as well as a way to heal old wounds, old heartache. On "When the Master Calls the Roll," two lovers - based loosely on two of Cash's relatives from the Civil War era - are reunited in death, in everlasting bliss.
On other songs that kind of healing works on narrators who grapple with contemporary struggles. Taken together, the result is a concept album - a timeless work of comfort and quiet joy.
DAVIES: Ken Tucker reviewed Rosanne Cash's new album "The River & The Thread."