Rosanne Cash on Writing, Country Music, and Her Father

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In the past year, Rosanne Cash has published two intensely personal pieces of art: her memoir, Composed, which came out last week, and The List, an album of classic country music songs that her father, Johnny Cash, introduced her to when she was a teenager. On the way up to Cape Cod earlier this summer, the singer, songwriter, and author discussed writing, music, and what her dad would think if he saw what she's up to now.

What made you decide to write Composed?

It's an accidental memoir, really, because I started writing essays and I wrote this essay called "The Ties that Bind," and it was chosen for Best Music Writing 2000.

And my editor at Viking, Rick Kot, said that piece is the beginning of a memoir. And I said, "I'm too young to write a memoir." And he said, "Well think about writing several volumes." So that's really how it began.

How did you feel about the fact that your family's story has been told by other people—your mother and father both wrote memoirs, and there was the movie Walk the Line. Did you feel you needed to set the record straight?

No, I never had any need to set the record straight because there's too many records. There's like 8,000 versions of the story, and I didn't want to attempt to write them according to my own perceptions. I thought that my memories were valid, and I'm a writer, and like I said I kind of grew into this choice to write a memoir. But I didn't have any need or any impulse to settle any scores. There's just not much dignity in that for me. I just don't care enough. I don't care enough what other people think.

Is there anything in Composed that your father would be surprised to know about?

I think he might be surprised at the things that I thought about deeply at a young age. He may not have realized that I was already in a place of trying to determine my own impulses and who I was. Maybe he saw it externally but maybe didn't realize that I was thinking deeply about these things.

I don't think there's anything that would totally surprise him about it. He knew me well. He knew me really, really well.

The List includes some songs your dad helped make famous: "Long Black Veil" and "Girl From the North Country." How does it feel to perform songs that aren't just classic country songs, but are his classics as well?

Well, you know, "Girl From the North Country" is really Bob Dylan's song, and there was that very iconic version in 1969, but Bob wrote it in '63, so that one's a little different.

"Long Black Veil"—it's interesting because a lot of people associate that song with my dad because he did record it. But my dad and I both associate it with Lefty Frizzell because that was the original version.

At the same time, when I recorded it, that was the song that I most felt my dad around me, and thinking, "Oh, my God, if he could hear me singing 'Long Black Veil' he just wouldn't believe it."

So it's a connection that goes back through the centuries. And I love that. I really love it. I love it that my daughters and my son will know these songs in three ways: the original version, their grandfather's version, and now their mother's version.

Presented by

Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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