Growing up in the shadow of one of the world’s most legendary musical icons can’t be easy. But Rosanne Cash never struck anyone — including her famous dad, who called her “The Brain” — as a shrinking violet who couldn’t take the challenge. Still, even as she carved out her own award-winning career, she had what she admits was a chip on her shoulder because as the eldest daughter of Johnny Cash, she was always just seconds away from a question about her dad.
A Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter who has had 11 No. 1 country singles, 21 Top 40 singles, and two gold albums, Rosanne has created her own musical identity and needs little introduction in that regard (Interiors, Black Cadillac, Rules of Travel, and “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me” immediately come to mind). Less known is that she has also created an identity as an author whose fiction and essays have been published in periodicals and collections including The New York Times and Rolling Stone. She has written three books, including a children’s book and now her first memoir, Composed, which was released in August.
After a string of devastating deaths between 2003 and 2005 and brain surgery in 2007, things are flowering again for Cash. Her latest CD, The List, was nominated for 2010 Americana Awards and Honors Album of the Year and she’s embarking on a book tour to promote her unconventional and compelling memoir. We talked to Rosanne after the release of The List about music, loss, and being comfortable in your own skin.
Cowboys & Indians: There is a wonderful story about your father’s influence behind the creation of your latest album, The List.
Rosanne Cash: I went on the road with my dad when I was 18, just after high school. We were talking about songs on the tour bus one day, and he mentioned a couple I didn’t know and he felt very passionate that I should know the songs that had so deeply informed him. He spent the rest of the day making a list for me, and he titled it “100 Essential Country Songs,” although it should have been called “100 Essential American songs,” as the list covered everything from early folk music to Delta blues.
C&I: One of the resulting 12 songs on the CD is a collaboration with Bruce Springsteen on “Sea of Heartbreak.” How did that come about?
Cash: We asked him and he said yes! [Husband, musician, and producer-arranger] John [Leventhal] and I thought he had the perfect American male voice and that our voices might blend well. We were so pleased with the outcome.
C&I: I thought your album The Wheel was one of the most underrated records from any genre in the last two decades — same goes for Steve Earle’s Jerusalem. Does it bother you that modern country radio programming doesn’t accept such diverse work?
Cash: Of all the things in this world that bother me, the fact that modern country radio doesn’t play me is way down on the list. I am comfortable in my own skin and my own life — I feel I’ve carved out a good place for myself. I like the Americana format and they give me a lot of love, which is great. And, by the way, I love Jerusalem. I was playing the title song to myself just a couple days ago.
C&I: In December 2007, you were diagnosed with Chiari malformation type I and subsequently had successful brain surgery to correct the condition. How did your diagnosis come about?
Cash: Basically, if the brain were a map of the country, the cerebellum would be up by Montana. My cerebellum was in a rogue location, down by the Panama Canal. Probably I had been born with this, but it got much worse — a kind of crushing inside my brain — over the years. I had epic headaches as well as a host of other symptoms — the cerebellum controls a lot of fun stuff — and after 10 years with one neurologist, who never figured it out, I got a great neurologist who diagnosed me properly.
C&I: You’ve been writing fiction in recent years, including a children’s book, Penelope Jane: A Fairy’s Tale. Will we see a novel anytime soon and what about a definitive biography?
Cash: No novel on the horizon, but my memoir was published by Viking [in August]. It’s called Composed. [Read the review here.]
C&I: What record do you have in your collection that people would be surprised to know you own?
Cash: I don’t know what would surprise people because I don’t have a great idea of what they think of me to begin with. I know some people think I’m a one-dimensional kind of daughter of an icon, and maybe they’d be surprised that I listen to Miles Davis and Arvo Pärt and Samuel Barber and Howlin’ Wolf. People who know my work probably would be surprised that I also listen to a little hip-hop, by way of my 11-year-old son.
C&I: Between 2003 and 2005 you lost your father, Johnny Cash; your mother, Vivian Liberto; and your stepmother, June Carter Cash. Did this seemingly unending sense of loss affect your music and outlook?
Cash: I would have to be made of stone not to be affected by so much loss in such a short time. And they were only the main players. In the same time period my stepsister, two aunts, a godfather, and two very dear friends also died. I wrote a record about the terrain of grief called Black Cadillac.
C&I: You support several charities including PAX and the SOS Children’s Village. …
Cash: I am drawn to organizations that protect children, and I have a strong impulse to offer my help to these two, in particular. I am generally fulfilled anyway, which is probably why I feel the impulse to be of service.
Issue: October 2010