A tone poem, featuring spoken words over an orchestral background and focusing on the river as a metaphor for the American experience, is almost sure to be corny, highfalutin or both. But in "American River," composer and arranger Jonathan Elias avoids pitfalls by placing substantial ideas in a deceptively simple musical setting. Beauty carries its own message.

Scored for strings (violin, cello, guitars, mandolin, dobro), piano and percussion, "American River" includes spoken word performances by the late Johnny Cash, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris and Kris Kristofferson. It features texts by, among others, Rosanne Cash, Kristofferson and Emma Lazarus (she of the words on the Statue of Liberty, recited here by Rosanne Cash). Musically, "American River" hints broadly at Aaron Copland, country music, Steve Reich-style minimalism, Appalachian folk music, electronica and even world music.

In lesser hands this might have been an interesting mess. Instead it is a smartly layered, elegant and often moving work.

Elias, 48, has had a diverse musical career. He has scored films and television commercials (including the "Moon Landing" score for the launch of MTV in 1983), and has produced and arranged CDs for major pop artists (B.B. King, Alanis Morissette, Duran Duran). "American River" is his third major solo project, following "Requiem for the Americas: Songs From the Lost World" (1989), featuring guest vocalists Patti Scialfa and Jon Anderson of the rock band Yes, among others, and "The Prayer Cycle" (1999), which included Morissette, Malian superstar Salif Keita and Perry Farrell.

In "American River," Elias calls on Johnny Cash to set the tone of the piece. On the disc's second track, "The Continuance/Mariners and Musicians," Cash, who died days after the recording was made, sounds wise and broken, an aging gunslinger turned into an Everyman oracle. "The American River lives inside our souls," he says, reading words by Elias and Vincenzo LoRusso. "Its struggle to remain pure is clouded by fear and deceit."

He's followed by his daughter Rosanne who, reading her own text, tells her family's immigrant story, starting with a Scottish mariner who arrived here in the 17th century. "I am part of the river of souls who make up the sliver of America that belongs to mariners and musicians," she says. "Those who love the sea, and those who make music. The ocean and the soil. The body and the soul. The words and the music."

Later on, in "The Source," Kristofferson's messy but moving text brings the piece back to a larger context. "The source of the American River," he says, "is the pure, clean dream of Freedom, and Justice and Mercy." In "American River" all politics are not just local, but personal; the American experience is a family story told with grace and compassion.

Jonathan Elias's "American River" is a family story gracefully told.