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The River & The Thread (2014)

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Rosanne Cash

Nearly eight years after Rosanne Cash last released a set of original songs, 2014's The River & the Thread finds her in a reflective mood, and just as 2009's The List saw her looking back with a set of classic songs recommended by her father, the late country legend Johnny Cash, The River & the Thread is dominated by thoughts and emotions that occurred to her as she was involved in a project to restore Johnny's boyhood home. This doesn't mean that Cash has returned to the spunky, country-accented sound of her most popular work -- this is still Rosanne Cash the mature and thoughtful singer/songwriter we've come to know since the late '90s, and the tone of this album is unfailingly literate. But though this music isn't country, it's certainly Southern, and road trips from Alabama to Tennessee, visits to the Tallahatchie Bridge and Money Street, and vintage gospel music on the radio embroider these songs as Cash immerses herself in the places that were once close to home as if she's reuniting with long lost family. And two of the songs cut especially close to home -- "Etta's Tune" was written in memory of Marshall Grant, a longtime family friend and member of Johnny Cash's band, while "When the Master Calls the Roll" is a tale of love torn apart during the Civil War that Cash wrote in collaboration with her former husband Rodney Crowell and current spouse John Leventhal -- and they rank with the best material on the album, genuine and heartfelt, and written and performed with a genuine passion that never sinks into sentimental histrionics. Just as Cash's songs are crafted with a subtle intelligence, her vocals here are superb, getting to the heart of the lyrics without painting herself into a corner, and the production is rich but elegant and to the point. Rosanne Cash hasn't been especially prolific in the 21st century, and at under 40 minutes, she wasn't crafting an epic with The River & the Thread. But she's learned to make every word and every note count, and this album confirms once again that she's matured into a singular artist with the talent and the vision to make these stories of her travels in the South come to vivid and affecting life. ~ Mark Deming