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Rosanne Cash on Writing, Country Music, and Her Father


Viking Adult

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.

It's interesting you say your dad would be surprised if he knew you'd recorded "Long Black Veil," because I think of all the songs on The List, it's the one you've most made your own.

What's interesting, too, is that it's a woman singing about another woman, which is really part of an old folk tradition but really not done all that often anymore. So I think Joan Baez may have recorded "Long Black Veil," but I can't think of another woman who did. So that in itself kind of stamped a bit of originality on it.

One of the things you write about in Composed is how there's a rich history in country music of not just singing about romance and love affairs, but also about family and tragedy and social issues. Who are some other artists who are carrying on that tradition in modern-day country music?

Modern-day country music? I don't know. I'm not really that familiar with modern-day country music, to tell you the truth.

But Steve Earle—he writes about social issues. He writes about a lot of subject matter beyond love and romance. Springsteen, same thing. Loudon Wainwright. Elvis Costello, actually, is good at that too, writing about stories. There are quite a few. There are some really good song-writers out there, still.

Another thing you write about is how music is in your blood, and that you're always bringing it home in some way. How do you find that playing itself out in your family now?

Music is currency in our house, and a means of communication, and a language, and a kind of a framework for everything. For everything. My husband [fellow musician John Leventhal] drives my son to school every day, and that half hour in the morning is such a musically rich time for them—John playing what he knows, and then Jakob turning John onto what's going around sixth grade.

And for my daughters, too. Chelsea was in the house the other day, and she picked up the guitar and started trying to figure out how to play a Beatles song. She couldn't figure out the chords so she went to John. It's just how we live. It's always there. My son is always picking out a Green Day song on the piano.

And also it provides context for feeling.

How so?

I know for myself if I'm feeling clogged up emotionally, and I don't even know what I'm feeling, I can put on a piece of music and the puzzle starts to arrange itself inside me. Whether I need a good cry, so I put on "Adagio for Strings", or whether I need to release some energy so I put on "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out." You know what I mean? I'm sure a lot of people do that, but it's essential for us.

What are you working on now?

I'm starting to write songs again. I'm still touring, which actually takes up a lot of mental space, but the next project I think I'm going to do is this trio project with Joe Henry and Billy Bragg. We're supposed to get together in November to start this. We're all three starting writing songs for that, and I'm really excited about doing that.

And also I recorded this thing that T Bone Burnett produced. It's a radio play that John Mellencamp and Steven King wrote called The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. It's a real radio play, and we recorded the songs and the dialogue too, and I played the mother, Kris Kristofferson played the father, Elvis Costello played Satan. It's a really cool play. I think that'll come out pretty soon.