Rosanne Cash’s latest record, “The River and the Thread” came out this week. It is brave and haunting—every song is a chapter of a well-written novel, or in this case, memoir. It’s one to dive into and swim in for a while.
When asked to do hair and makeup for Rosanne’s segment on CBS Sunday Morning, I was thrilled. Honestly, I just love working with her, and will take any opportunity to hang out with the lady. I had no idea how much I would learn during those few days, and how much of herself Rosanne has poured into this record.
We left on a Sunday. The Sunday that temperatures dropped to record lows in Nashville, and weren’t any higher in Memphis, where we were filming. John Leventhal, who co-wrote and produced the record, and happens to be Rosanne’s husband, planned to meet us in Memphis and be on the segment as well. The album was inspired by the road trips Rosanne and John took through the south to revisit places of her heritage and unearth pieces of herself left behind. Unfortunately, because of the crazy weather, every single possible flight John tried to take out of New York was cancelled, and he never made it to Memphis.
Anthony Mason re-scripted for John’s absence, and the first, freezing day, as we stood in Johnny Cash’s childhood home in Dyess, Arkansas, it became clear that Rosanne needed to tell the stories behind these songs, come hail or high-water, or freeze-yer-ass-off cold. It was twenty degrees INSIDE the cabin, wind-chill factor well below freezing outside. And the wind was definitely blowing. Other than Rosanne, Anthony, the camera crew, myself and JR and Josh from Blue Note Records standing in the tiny cabin, there was a man firing a kerosene heater every twenty minutes or so while cameras weren’t rolling to take the edge off the cold, also the mayor of Dyess (population just over four hundred people), and Ruth Hawkins—the woman who has taken it upon herself to restore Johnny Cash’s childhood home (a feat that requires years of intense work and organization). Rosanne started talking about her own personal digging and rebuilding, and the magic started.
Shot from inside the home.
“You thought you’d left it all behind, you thought you’d up and gone. . . But all you did was figure out how to take the long way home.”
Song: “The Long Way Home”
Anthony Mason’s shot of the outside of Johnny Cash’s childhood home
Two warrior women: Rosanne and Ruth Hawkins
After shooting in Dyess, we called it a day because the sun was setting, and the cold taking to our bones. Truth be told—Anthony, Rosanne, and the camera crew had it the worst, because they also filmed while walking the grounds outside. The rest of us huddled by the kerosene heater until it was time to load up again. So when you watch the show (this Sunday, Jan 19th at 8 am, central), and see the footage outside—know that it was very, very, cold. I was impressed that Rosanne and Anthony were able to keep their voices steady and the conversation clear. Professionals, for ya.
That night, when pressed by Rosanne, Josh and I confessed that neither of us had ever been to Sun Record Studios or to Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. She insisted we go.
Josh and I ran inside the studio, snapped some shots and took a quick look around. I was tempted to scream to the crowd of tourists, “We have Rosanne Cash in the car outside!”, but I suppressed my Tourettes. Next up was Gus’s.
This sign hangs over the kitchen, and the photo does no justice to the place. The three of us sat over plates of fried chicken, fried pickles, fried green tomatoes, plastic cups of sweet tea, and finished it off by sharing a slice of Coconut cream pie. A born Southerner, I told Rosanne it was truly the best chicken and fried green tomatoes I’d ever had, and she didn’t argue. Josh is from Jersey, so the whole thing was a revelation to him. Filled with locals, a jukebox in the corner, a sassy waitress, and giant beers on the tables around us, it was exactly what our cold bones and bellies needed.
We started early the next day.
Rosanne in front of her childhood home in Memphis. She has a photo that her mother took of her as a little girl sitting in the same spot. They’ll show the two shots on the episode Sunday. It was a rough street with anxiety (and cold) in the air. We got in and out as quickly as possible, and started our journey to Mississippi.
I’m not sure how I grew up in the South and never heard the story about Emmet Till and the Tallahatchie River. But until we stopped on Money Road, I had never heard his name.
And this is what’s left of the fated grocery store:
“A lonesome boy in a foreign land
Out on Money Road
And a voice we’ll never understand
Out on Money Road. . .
One lies in the Zion Yard
And one sleeps on the river bar
Neither one got very far
Out on Money Road. . .
You can cross the bridge and carve your name, but the river stays the same
We left but never went away, out on Money Road”
From the Song “Money Road”
The Tallahatchie Bridge. Significant to southern history and “The River and the Thread” for so many reasons. If you scroll to the top of this post, and look at the album cover, you’ll see she is standing in near the same spot as the shot above. John took the cover shot on one of their road trips—it might have been around the same time they wrote “Money Road”, though I won’t claim certainty on that one. Again, watch the show.
“A feather’s not a bird
The rain is not the sea
A stone is not a mountain
But a river runs through me”
From the song “A Feather’s Not A Bird”
Lastly, we visited the grave of Robert Johnson, the mysterious musician said to be one of the most significant founders of the Blues, and to have sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads for fame and success. As you can see, he was only twenty-seven when he died. You can also see he’s offered many more drinks now than when he was living—a musical Van Gogh of his time.
Sadly, we didn’t make it to our last destination: Dockery Farms, the reported birthplace of the Delta Blues. I’m hoping CBS wants to do a second segment. . . if not, I’ll have to do some road trippin’ myself.
Watch the show this Sunday. Buy “The River and the Thread”. Whatever the weather, it’s all worth the journey.