Photo: Clay Patrick McBride
In 2009, Rosanne Cash and her husband, producer/musician/recordist John Leventhal, made The List, a selection of covers from a longer list of essentials that Johnny Cash had given to his daughter when she was 18. That album gave listeners new insights into the music that inspired the Man in Black, and a new appreciation of classic country and folk songs like “Heartaches by the Number” and “500 Miles.”
Cash and Leventhal continue to explore the musical soul of the American South on The River and the Thread—this time not by re-envisioning chestnuts, but through new songs that tap into the essence of Southern music.
“Immersing ourselves in the songs on The List was a great experience, and it started me thinking we should find a theme for Rosanne’s next record that ties it all together, but where we do the songwriting,” Leventhal says. “We took several trips to the South and were thinking how the South has informed so much of the music we love—from Muscle Shoals and Fame and Stax and Hi and Sun, to all the deeply soulful bluesmen from the Delta, as well as all the great musicians from Appalachia. But we didn’t want to make it a pastiche, where we would be mimicking classic Stax or Delta blues, or even country music. The trick was how to make it sound fresh and original, but still resonate with the great Southern styles we love.”
Cash and Leventhal created a beautiful collection of originals that take what Leventhal calls an “impressionistic journey through the South.” The lyrics describe various characters, experiences and landscapes; the music is full of gentle, often subtle, references to roots music, and to ’60s and ’70s soul and pop. Sometimes a horn section makes all the difference, or orchestral strings, or slide guitar.
Leventhal does his studio work at New York Noise, a Manhattan facility that’s close to his home and is co-owned by Rick DePofi, Leventhal’s co-engineer and co-producer on The List and The River and the Thread. To start any project, Leventhal surrounds himself with necessary tools, and lets the ideas come.
“I’ll sit with an acoustic guitar and vocal mic at the computer controls, and I’ll have percussion instruments around me—a snare on a stand, some shakers, a tambourine,” he says. “Everything’s plugged into my pre’s with some compressors. In the beginning, I move very quickly. The ideas are flowing through me, and I like to try to get them down without thinking about them too much.”
John Leventhal (left) and Rick Depofi
Photo: Wes Bender
“Since John plays a lot of the instruments on the record, he’s always at it, figuring out what he’s going to do,” DePofi adds. “I try to keep out of the room as much as possible during that phase so I can come in with fresh ears. He wants to be able to throw ideas at me and have me chime in. I’m there to help him engineer, and then to come in and say, ‘That sounds great,’ or ‘I don’t get it,’ or ‘What happened to Rose?’”
Leventhal’s fluid process—without hard lines between demo’ing, arrangements, tracking and mixing—requires a flexible engineering approach, as well. For Leventhal’s guitars, there are always several amps wired up with 57s on hand to capture whichever unit they choose.
“We have a collection of four or five mics that we use for [acoustic] guitars: [Neumann] U 67s and 563s and a Gefell UMT 70s,” says DePofi, who records and mixes in Cubase. “For the most part, we use API and Daking mic pre’s with Distressors or 1176s for guitars. We’re constantly completely changing the setup.”
Leventhal says that as soon as he has a solid melodic foundation for a given song, it’s time to start cutting Cash’s vocals. “It’s important for me to get a semblance of a real vocal early on,” he says. “Everything I do is to create an interesting world around the vocalist.”
Leventhal owns two Neumann U 67 vocal mics that he says, “sound fantastic and utterly different from each other.” One was modified by Klaus Heine, and Leventhal says it has a “classic” sound, whereas the other has a rich but darker tone: “I’ll make an intuitive decision as to which one to use; or sometimes I’ll put both in front of her and decide.” Cash’s vocal chain also includes a Daking 52270 mic pre, an Empirical Labs Distressor, or sometimes a Summit tube compressor.
The River and the Thread includes a couple of tracks played live with members of Cash’s touring band. “Modern Blue,” for example, started with Leventhal playing all of the parts, but then he decided to switch things up. “I think if you heard the demo, you would think, ‘That’s nice,’ but the band performance gave it more urgency and magic,” he says.
Leventhal and Cash also got help from several guests, including John Paul White of Civil Wars, Alison Moorer, Derek Trucks, and the “Master’s Choir”—Rodney Crowell, Amy Helm, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine and Tony Joe White—who recorded choruses for “When the Master Calls the Roll” with engineer Donivan Cowart in Crowell’s home studio.
“I like my tracks to have a little bit of sparseness to them but still be interesting,” Leventhal says. “I’m always trying to make sure the vocal is dominating and really moving, and that the production leads you to the emotional intent of the song. Hopefully there are some other interesting bits in the track as well: a compelling groove, and guitar parts and hooks that are vibe-y and bring you into it. Ideally that’s what we want to do: make a record that continually draws you in.”