NEW YORK -- John Hiatt once commanded us in song to "Drive South." Rosanne Cash took him up on it.
Cash's first collection of new compositions in seven years is inspired by trips south -- by car, in her mind and into her own family history. "There's never any highway when you're looking for the past," she sings as a mission statement in the opening minutes of her album, "The River & The Thread."
Johnny Cash's daughter was primarily raised in California and has been a New Yorker for more than two decades.
"I have some Southern sensibility, but it would be false to say I'm Southern at the core," she said. "I don't think I could have written the record if I was. It required some distance."
An example is "Money Road," a song born out of a birthday road trip for husband and producer John Leventhal, a William Faulkner fan who wanted to explore where the novelist grew up. The region is historically rich, the birthplace of bluesmen and the murder site of civil rights figure Emmett Till. The couple stopped and sat on the Tallahatchie Bridge, memorably cited in Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe," a song Cash has recorded and frequently sings in concert.
Cash is pictured from behind on the disc's cover looking out at the Tallahatchie River.
The "thread" reference comes from the opening song "A Feather's Not a Bird" courtesy of Cash's friend and sewing teacher Natalie Chernin, who lives in Florence, Ala.
The disc's lyrics are rich in Southern locales: Florence, the Tallahatchie Bridge, the James River in Virginia, Mobile, Ala., Memphis, Tenn., Nashville, Arkansas. Cash spent time in Dyess, Ark., helping Arkansas State University restore the home where her father grew up as a historic site. Cash believes her father would have loved the gesture, and the home provides a window into family history for her kids.
The song "Etta's Tune" is about Marshall Grant, the bass player in Johnny's band the Tennessee Three, and his wife. Cash was close to them and Marshall died while they were in Dyess to help raise funds for the restoration.
"The Long Way Home" is about the circuitous path many people take that leads back to their roots. Cash, 58, took it, too. "What makes you care about where your parents came from in your 40s and 50s that you didn't care about in your 20s and 30s?" she said.
She spent her 20s and 30s as a country music star. Despite that history, despite making an album primarily about the South, the country music establishment is likely to ignore her this time. They've both moved on. She wants the music to be heard, but is realistic about the outlets available.
One pathway is the Americana music community, where she is "revered," said Jed Hilly, executive director of the Americana Music Association. "She's unique, not because of who she is but because of her talent and her personality," he said. "She's incredibly smart and passionate about making music."
Cash's famous musical guests all had Southern connections, including John Paul White of the Civil Wars, guitarist Derek Trucks and singer Cory Chisel. Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Amy Helm, Rodney Crowell and Tony Joe White sing background on the Civil War tale "When the Master Calls the Roll." She and Leventhal wrote the song with ex-husband Crowell, a connection hard to envision by anyone who listened to Cash's 1990 album, "Interiors."
It felt natural, Cash said. "John calls him his husband-in-law," she said.
While not intended as such, Cash's trips provided both a spark and framework for her project.
"I know writers who go to other locales just to shake it up, to get a shift in perspective so they can be inspired," she said. "We definitely had that in our mind. We knew that we would see things, feel things that would be out of the norm for us and hopefully would be inspiring. And they were."