Rosanne Cash and her music have been gone from Nashville and the country mainstream a good deal longer than they were here. Two decades ago, give or take, she set her course for New York and a more uptown, jazz-tinged and introspective sound that's found a better fit in the Americana world. Perhaps symbolically, her return to Nashville this week will be at a pair of events connected to this weekend's Americana Music Festival: an appearance at the Americana Honors & Awards ceremony 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Ryman, and a signing of her new memoir noon Friday at the downtown Sheraton on Union Street.
But her earlier presence still echoes, and certainly not only because she shares a surname emblazoned on block-lettered bumper stickers and T-shirts. From her star-making 1981 LP Seven Year Ache to last year's country-covers concept album The List — her most popular record in 22 years — she did, and does, her own thing with intelligence. And it shouldn't come as a surprise that at this point in her life and career she's got considerable perspective on the relationships between where she comes from, who she is and what she's chosen for herself. Enough for a memoir — titled with supreme self-awareness Composed — and an interview in which she discusses some of the difficult choices she made for her book, her music and her career.
The Scene spoke with Rosanne Cash by phone last week.
Q: The fact that you come from a family so many people have projected their own ideas onto, how did that affect the writing process?
I wasn't doing it for anybody else. There wasn't any need for me to write about Johnny Cash. I wrote about my dad, and my relationship with him as a father, just as I wrote about my relationship with my mother. I didn't consciously decide not to write things because of what people might think. I just wrote. I mean, I had other guiding principles about what I would write about.
Q: That's an important distinction, that you were talking about your father and your stepmother; you were not talking about ...
The people that you guys know.
Q: Right. And you say there were other guiding principles. What were those?
To follow my own moral code. I wasn't going to hurt anyone or dish dirt about anyone or settle any scores. I find that public airing of grievances to be the most appalling trend in popular culture. And I just wasn't going to do it. And the New York Times actually complained that I didn't do more of it.
Q: I read that.
It was so annoying, just the fact that [the reviewer] didn't stop to think that that was a choice I made, that it wasn't a default position, that I actually made the choice not to do that. So he reviewed the book I didn't write, basically. That was one of my guiding principles. And the other thing was I'm a songwriter so I wanted it to have a sense of poetry and melody about it.
Q: Your writing is very self-aware. How many of the events that are in the book had you processed through before you started writing?
I think that even things I thought that I was done with, once I [started writing] there was a fresh angle or there was some subtle epiphany about them. Particularly the way themes were connected in my life. ...That was actually always a pleasure and a surprise to find how memories were linked, how time is not really linear in the psyche.
Q: The way that each chapter flows is not necessarily linear. That must have been ...
It totally was. I told my editor from the outset that I couldn't write a linear chronology. My mind doesn't even work that way. So I took inspiration from some other memoirs that were nonlinear. You know, M.F.K. Fisher, who's really one of my favorite writers. And she wrote about her life by writing about food. And I thought I could write about my life by writing about songs. I loved Chronicles, Bob Dylan's book, and it also jumped around a bit in a kind of satisfying way.
Q: Did you let anybody who's in the book read it during the process?
Only my husband [John Leventhal].
Q: Which is probably wise, if you don't want too many people asking you to change things.
Well, yeah, except I did call my sisters and my aunt and say "I'm writing about these things. What do you remember?" Just to kind of check things out. I mean, most of the book, though, was solo. Like the whole thing in London, nobody remembers that but me. The childhood memories, you know, I was older than my sisters. I'm the oldest, so I experienced it all very differently.
Q: You write of having a conscious idea early on in your childhood of the kind of person that you wanted to be — sophisticated, deep and knowing.
I had longings for things that I couldn't even articulate. You know, I didn't put this in the book — I should have — but when I was 12 I wrote my dad this letter. We were big letter-writers back then. And I wrote him a letter trying to express the longing for art that I had. And it just kind of floored him. I remember the time. He wrote back a long, long letter. And it was a great moment, too. Because I knew that he would understand it of anyone I knew.
Q: Your drive to be your own person manifested itself at a certain time in your life as rebellion against being a musician — to be a writer but not a songwriter; and then, once you'd become a songwriter and performer, setting yourself apart.
I think most young people do, if they're going into the same profession as their parent who's been very successful. I think it's essential, actually. And then you can, as you mature, come back around to what your legacies are.
Q: When, after you'd come into your own, do you feel you began to fully embrace your roots, and comfortably harmonize the two things?
Well, I always loved it, let's just say that, even if I held it at bay. But on King's Record Shop when I recorded my dad's song ["Tennessee Flat Top Box"], that was the first step in the saying "yes."... And then in my 40s much more. And then, of course, that process completed itself when I made The List.
Q: Besides talking about what you were thinking and feeling at a given moment, you also acknowledge how you might have affected others. One example being when Rodney Crowell hired a new guitar player, who happened to be Vince Gill, and you were upset about losing your previous guitar player, so you sort of froze him out until he proved himself. Were you tempted not to tell those things?
Well, I took the brunt of (laughs) ... I took the heat for all of those. Nobody else looks bad in those situations but me.
Q: That's what I'm saying (laughs).
I knew I had to write that. I wasn't going to write this self-reverential, navel-gazing celebrity memoir that just talked about how great I was. Or what's the point? I had to also talk about the walls I ran into and the humility I had to learn. You know, lessons learned.
Q: You grew up mostly in California, but you allude to people sometimes having the mistaken notion that you were raised in the South. How do you think assumptions like that affected the way people perceived you or your music?
Oh, I think there were so many false perceptions, at least from what I read and what people said to me. But if I had shifted my energy to correcting misperceptions, I would have never done the work I've done. And I even began to enjoy disabusing people of their notions when they come to see me live or listen to a record. Let them have their false perceptions as long as they want (laughs). They're gonna have them anyway. I mean, a lot of times if you're in the public light you're just a screen for people to put their own stuff on. How are you going to stop that? You can't stop it. My father's an enormous screen, much of it false.
Q: You talk about struggling with being both a mother and a touring artist. That's something I haven't heard many female performers talk about.
Well, you know, when I was younger, I didn't tour even a fraction as much as my contemporaries did. I kept saying "no." In fact, I had this rep as the artist who wouldn't tour. People would sympathize with my manager: "Oh man, that must be really hard. You can't get her out on the road." But even so, I did tour some. Even some of that I regret, you know, when the kids were little — even though it wasn't as much. So I got better at my instincts about that over the years. I don't think a woman can have it all. I think you have to make a choice. My youngest is now 11, so I do have more freedom to tour a bit more. He's not a baby, and he actually does go with us a lot, too.
Q: That's an important perspective to hear.
That was the biggest myth of the women's movement, that women could have it all. You just can't.
Q: You mention having an epiphany toward the end of your time in Nashville: the difference between being successful and being an artist. Did it seem like it would be hard to fully do both where you were at the time?
Well, yes. I did think it was hard to do both, because I tried it while making Interiors and it was soundly rejected. And then I began to realize that for me — I'm not saying this is true for everyone — for me, I couldn't do both. I didn't have the forum to do both. It was like being an oil painter but having them say, "Well, you can only use watercolors." I'm sure some people can do it — there's no hard and fast rule about that — but I couldn't. I made the next natural step in my life. And I had less success, but it turned out to be the perfect choice for me.
Q: The way you talk about the different seasons of your recording career it's evident you feel more comfortable in your own skin now.
That's right. And that was the whole goal. You know, I was so uncomfortable and I wasn't doing what I wanted to do. And I had a 6,000-square-foot house and a big diamond ring and a lot of hit records, and I just felt hollow. I wasn't doing what I wanted to do.
Q: When you look back on that first season of your career, what do you feel those albums through the '80s amount to?
I feel a great affection for who I was then and how hard I worked and the struggle to learn what I was already doing. I think I made some good records and I'm proud of that body of work. But it's almost like having two lives, you know.
Q: A lot of people feel they're works of high quality and importance.
Yeah, I'm very proud of it. I mean, there was a certain craft to that that I don't think I could do anymore. I do something really different now, but there was something about that that was good. I think I played it out as long as I could.
Q: When you tell the story of making Rhythm & Romance — how hard a process it was and how that colored your feelings about the album—it's clear you hold your works close.
I do hold them all very close. All of them have been deeply felt, to the extent that I was able to. To go creatively as deep as I could go at that moment. That's why they're precious to me; they're important to me. None of them do I go "Oh, that was just some trifle I did in my spare time." None of them.
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