“I think it takes until middle age before you’re interested in your ancestry,” says singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, 58, who has had 11 No. 1 country singles and also happens to be the daughter of the late Johnny Cash. “I thought my connection to the South was just a footnote.”
That was before Cash and her husband (and producer) John Leventhal and her 13-year-old son took a road trip to the South.
The result is a stunning new album, “The River & the Thread” (Blue Note), which Cash will draw on for her concert Wednesday at the Moore Theatre.
The album really got started when Leventhal, who plays guitar and other instruments on the album, spied a sign along the Mississippi saying “Birthplace of Reggie Young” — a great Southern studio musician who has recorded with everyone from Elvis Presley to Merle Haggard.
“John said, ‘There’s something here,’ ” recalls Cash.
Imagine visiting Robert Johnson’s grave, the (nearby) store where civil-rights martyr Emmett Till was fatefully accused of flirting with a white woman, and your own father’s hardscrabble home in the “sunken lands” around Osceola, Ark. — all in one day.
Or Memphis, itself, where, eons ago, Johnny Cash recorded with Elvis, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis at Sun Studio in the “Million Dollar Quartet.”
“I think the river has a lot to do with it,” says Cash of the Memphis mystique. “You look at it and understand what Paul Simon wrote in ‘Graceland’ — ‘shining like a National guitar.’ It all converged there, the nexus of ‘hillbilly’ music and ‘race’ music becoming rockabilly … I mean, it was all right there, and gave rise to so much that we love today.”
But that’s the prose of the matter. The poetry is in Cash’s songwriting, starting with the first song’s chorus:
“A feather’s not a bird
The rain is not the sea
A stone is not the mountain
But a river runs through me.”
Cash’s recognition that the river of the South runs through her is reprised on “The Long Way Home,” as, over a slow, staccato twang, she sings, “you thought you’d left it all behind” but realizes that, really, she was just taking the long way around to a familiar place.
A fascinating aspect to some of these songs is that Cash wrote the choruses first — including that first quatrain — in some cases, years earlier.
“When I wrote that chorus I didn’t know what it was about,” she says. “When I gave it to John and he wrote that swampy melody, then I knew.”
Cash, who grew up in California and has lived in New York for more than 20 years, emphasizes that “The River & The Thread” is not about her parents’ lives (though it definitely touches on them), but her own journey.
Would she ever consider moving back to the South?
“No,” she says, “I don’t think I could. I think I was a New Yorker from day one. I wanted a larger community of writers and, truthfully, I wanted the anonymity.
“And I love The New Yorker!”
8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 26, at the Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle; $32.50-$52.50 (877-784-4849 or stgpresents.org).CQ