“A feather’s not a bird
The rain is not the sea
A stone is not a mountain
But a river runs through me”
Two installments ago I mentioned that in a lot of ways, 2014 had become my year of Johnny Cash. With the purchase of his entire Columbia Records collection, as well as reading a new biography about him earlier in the year, the man and his music have dominated a great deal of my listening time this year. I would like to amend that statement now however to say that what I should really consider 2014 to be is my year of Cash. Now a year of cash would be nice, but a year of Cash is not too shabby as a consolation. By that I mean of course that together with all that music by Johnny Cash I bought came the release of Rosanne Cash’s incredible new album earlier in the year entitled The River & The Thread. I have been a fan of Rosanne’s for quite some time. In fact, long before I had any albums by Johnny Cash, I had several by Rosanne. I think it was her version of Tennessee Flat Top Box that I came across (probably via the Country Music Network) in the 80’s that did it, though My Baby Thinks He’s A Train also sounded good to my young ears. When it came down to buying the albums the choice was never difficult- Right Or Wrong, Seven Year Ache, Rules Of Travel, Black Cadillac and Kings Record Shop are just a few of my favorites. I have a vinyl copy of Kings Record Shop and its wonderful cover art is proudly displayed in our apartment in one of those vinyl record frames. As great as all those albums are, I genuinely believe The River & The Thread to be the finest of her career. Impeccably written, played, and sung throughout, it also utilizes one of my favorite things, not seen nearly enough these days, or for certain age groups of listeners, something that is probably completely unknown. Together with the songs on The River & The Thread it also has a tie in of sorts with photography.
I am speaking of course about liner notes, which can be as simple as a list of songwriting credits and who played what on each song, or as in The River & The Thread it can be a story as to the thought process regarding each song. Both types have been part of my musical education right from the very first album I owned, and I am sure that is the case for anyone who considers themselves to be a serious music fan. To this day whenever I pick up a new CD, or rummage through stores that sell vinyl, even though the outer sleeve is what grabs you first , it is what is inside in the liner notes that I head to first, often times before I even get a chance to play it. That will never change for me. Rather than books or articles about music, the liner notes generally reveal the nature of the project. It is a dead giveaway that if a band has never had a banjo on an album before, but one suddenly appears on 2 tracks as you can read from the liner notes, you know there is something different going on with this album. If you see a guest artist who comes from a different type of music genre then you know there is a surprise in store with the collaboration. Often times I get excited when I see connections like that in the notes and in my head I work out the links between artists, filing them away for future reference and trivia. Sometimes the notes might be inside jokes between band members, or cryptic stories you wish you were privy to mentioned in the acknowledgements. Sometimes it may even be useful information, such as resources to organizations artists support, or books dealing with subject matter mentioned in the songs. They are quite important in traditional music, and provide a way of correctly identifying the source of the music. Liner notes also provide an element of musical anthropology in listing details of instruments you may never have heard of before. So for example, after following along and reading the notes while listening you may now have a sound reference for what a Dulcimer, Kora, or a Cajon actually sound like the next time you encounter them. They can show you how the seemingly disparate sounds of instruments that do not naturally ‘fit’ with one another can come together to make an unexpected and beautiful sound. Liner notes reveal the songwriters, they reveal the songs and lyrics themselves, from ridiculously funny, to unbelievably sad. Over the years people have often asked me how I came to know about so much music, how I know the instruments, and who played what, or the lyrics to thousands of songs together with who produced them. Though it is true I do read a lot of books and articles about music, the real answer to that question has always been the same. It is all in the liner notes.
“Dark highways and the country roads
Don’t scare you like they did
The woods and the winds now welcome you
To the places you once hid”
The liner notes to The River & The Thread have all the sort of recording details obsessive music fans like myself expect, but more importantly they expand on the depth of ideas, both lyrical and musical that went into the project. For a variety of reasons the album became an exploration of the American south for Rosanne together with her husband and collaborator John Leventhal. They traveled extensively throughout the south capturing ideas on everything from old radio stations to the Civil War, from the New Deal community in Dyess, Arkansas where Johnny Cash and his family grew up to miles of roads and bridges and the people with stories in between. It is an album of exploration and the listener is invited along for the ride. Much work was put in over phrases and ideas together with the impeccable music throughout before they were crafted into the finished parts. Following Rosanne on Facebook revealed this in snippets throughout the entire process of making this album. I think early on it became very clear that this was going to be more than just a new album. This was going to be something special. In reading the liner notes to the album, written by both Cash and Leventhal this becomes even more apparent.
In reading those notes through several times, I realized that there was one key word that summed up the crafting of The River & The Thread. Though both Rosanne and John do not use that one particular word in the liner notes, the spirit of it is very much there. It is a word that has a lot to do with taking time and thinking about what things really mean. Rosanne reveals that several of the songs took months to develop, with ideas started, as in the opener ‘A Feather’s Not A Bird,’ but not finished until a well-timed remark from a friend while learning to sew gave her an idea that allowed her to finish the song and provide the album title. In ‘Modern Blue’ it took her time before she realized how to link traveling in Barcelona together with travelling to Memphis, but when finally figured out became a cohesive song that made sense. The song ‘Sunken Lands,’ about the home in Dyess, Arkansas where Johnny and his family were raised was written with thoughts of her grandmother and the imagery of ‘five cans of paint.’ The refrain in ’Etta’s Tune’ of “what’s the temperature darling”, the simple but beautiful greeting spoken every morning between Johnny’s bass player Marshall Grant and his wife Etta sticks with you after hearing the song. In ‘Money Road’ she describes a day that was “a kind of vortex of music, tragedy and revolution” visiting the grave of Robert Johnson together with the spot where young Emmett Till was murdered in 1955, all in the shadow of the Tallahatchie Bridge. ‘When The Master Calls The Roll’, co-written with Rodney Crowell is an extraordinary bit of make believe about two very real ancestors of Cash on opposite sides during the Civil War. The entire album is filled with observations just like that. Observations that required time and contemplation. Proof positive that the best things take time, and when we write, or even take photographs we do best when we think and do not rush. In this everything moving fast, instant answer, technology driven era we all live in that has become increasingly difficult to do.
“What’s the temperature darlin?
Now don’t stare into the past
There was nothing we could change or fix
It was never gonna last
Now don’t stare into those photos
Don’t analyze my eyes
We’re just a mile or two from Memphis
And the rhythm of our lives”
The last Soundtrack Of A Photograph blog related to harmony, with photographs that I felt reflected that word and idea. By now you may have surmised what the word I have held off mentioning until now is. The clue is in what these photographs all show in some manner-reflection. I deliberately avoided using the word up to this point in this installment, even resorting to a search for the word to make sure I did not use it inadvertently. The photographs I am using here all have a degree of reflection to them one way or the other. Some have that mirror image sort of reflection, of a shiny surface duplicating the real life image. When composed well, it results in a photograph where that reflection is so close to the actual object you are photographing that you can almost show it upside down, so true is the reflection. Other forms of the technique are more about reflected light on the water, shimmering like glass in the bright sun or waning with the last moments of sunset. Some have a degree of distortion or the illusion of something else to them. The photographs I have used here are all examples of some of the different types of reflection a photographer can utilize. No matter what kind of reflection you see in the photographic world, in our daily lives it is a useful word. Whether it is being used for writing, photography, in liner notes, or even just contemplation of our everyday lives, reflection, just like harmony is another vital word.
Like the journey Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal took writing and recording The River & The Thread, reflection definitely relates to how I write this blog. I take my time, and spend hours sometimes agonizing over the layout. Does this photo work better after this paragraph, or should I use this one? Does that song quote fit here better or should I save it for the end? Do I reveal the artist and song right away, or build some suspense by holding back? These are all things I think about while writing. This very installment was pored over in much the same way. It is also something I think about when taking photographs. You really do need to concentrate on what you are doing in photography or any creative process for that matter, because it is very easy to get bogged down. Struggles with getting the correct words out on paper, or being satisfied with a photograph you spent time thinking about, or finding a melody that fits a song can be very frustrating. Some people are able to just bash it out, brainstorming and letting loose with a torrent of free thought and stream of consciousness. For others though, it is about reflecting on what they are really trying to say that provides the answers. As a reluctant writer until I began writing this blog I have to say I still fall into that scenario. Sometimes this does result in putting the project away for some time. I love taking photographs, but sometimes when I take my cameras with me every day, the results I often get back are pedestrian or feel like ones I have already taken before and I get frustrated. When I set the cameras aside for a few days, or bring them out because I am going someplace new, which as a New Yorker may mean something as simple as going to a different neighborhood, suddenly the creative spark returns. Or when I shut the computer off and pick up a book and immerse myself in another world gradually I can begin to reflect on other ideas. When I take time the mind seems to inevitably return to the task at hand and the ideas and good results seem to flow freely again. That is the thing about reflecting on something. It takes time but when you do, it usually brings satisfying results.
“Five cans of paint
And the empty fields
The dust reveals”
Now that the word reflection is out in the open, I can say why it is really such a key on The River & The Thread. Often in reviews you hear buzzwords like timeless, evocative, inspiring, reminiscent, elusive, and many more. I know I have used words like that in these blogs, and I suppose the reason they are used so often is because I think we wish there were more examples of them in our lives readily available. The beauty of an album like The River & The Thread, the beauty of a simple photograph, the beauty of writing that transports you back in time seems to be increasingly difficult to find these days. As a result we post old photos of ourselves on Facebook for Throwback Thursday as a way to remember simpler times. We use Instagram to make our current photos look vintage and like they did in our youth. We go to YouTube to find old songs we remember from the past. In the last few years we have returned to buying vinyl records as a way of shunning the ease digital music brings. We may live in the now, filled with smartphones and tablets and laptops and WiFi, we may watch new movies and TV shows yet as a society we seem to be looking back more. So then in comes an album like The River & The Thread, which is every bit as timeless, evocative, and inspiring as an old movie and we become spellbound by it as a result. With the aid of those liner notes we are able to reflect on why these songs are so memorable and satisfying. If you really let it get in to you, it is much more meaningful then all the modern amenities one could dream of. I think that is why so many of us reflect and say ‘remember when’ sometimes, because albums like The River & The Thread, or the right sort of photograph stir up memories for us and remind us we need to cling to them in this ever more cynical and at times mean spirited world we live in. For the first time here on this blog, I am choosing an entire album, Rosanne Cash’s The River & The Thread to be my Soundtrack Of A Photograph for this installment for helping to soothe some of that cynicism. Also because it is an incredible album.
Go ahead and reflect on that. Then let me know what you think.
A Feather’s Not A Bird, The Long Way Home, Etta’s Tune, The Sunken Lands-written by Rosanne Cash & John Leventhal
All photographs by Robert P Doyle All images in this blog are available in limited supply for purchase as unframed prints. Sizes may vary. Contact via email@example.com for details.
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