Book review of 'Composed,' a memoir by singer Rosanne Cash
By Rosanne Cash
Viking. 245 pp. $26.95
"For the first fifteen years of my own career," Rosanne Cash writes in this wise, honest and utterly engaging memoir, she "struggled . . . mightily" with the impulse to break away from the musical bonds of her family. Small wonder. By the late 1970s, when she was in her early 20s and embarking on that career, her father, Johnny Cash, had become one of the most celebrated musicians in the country, and her stepmother, June Carter Cash, was right on stage beside him. Making the burden even heavier, June's forebears, known professionally as the Carter Family, were among the founding royalty of country music, right up there with Jimmie Rodgers and, in the second generation, Hank Williams.
For any child of any famous star in any art form, remaining true to one's roots while at the same time establishing a presence of one's own can be a formidable challenge, all the more so when, as in Rosanne Cash's case, one's love for that famous parent is deep and unconditional. On the one hand, she wanted to be known as Rosanne Cash, not just as Johnny Cash's daughter, but that's just what she was and is, and she's obviously as proud of it as she could be. "He cast an obviously large shadow," she writes, "and it was hard for me to find my own place outside of it, or to be comfortable when the shadow was the first thing people noticed about my life or my work." What's remarkable is that she's somehow managed to combine the two, to be at once herself and her father's daughter. The wonderful music she writes and performs has country at its heart, as of course his did, but it also draws upon rock, folk, the blues and even the faintest hint of jazz.
Johnny Cash had his share of the world's problems, chief among them an addiction to drugs against which he struggled for much of his life, but he seems to have been a loving, attentive, concerned father to the four daughters he had with his first wife, Vivian, and the son he had with June. "When I was a day out of high school," Rosanne writes, "my father took me on the road. It was something of a graduation gift, and a chance to catch up on some of the time we had lost." Her account of that journey should be quoted at length:
"Traveling the world, watching him perform, and singing on the bus were also the basis for a serious education. Early on he made a list of a hundred essential country songs, which he instructed me to learn, a wide-ranging selection that ran from old history-lesson songs like 'The Battle of New Orleans' through classics like Hank Williams's 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry.' As I was ushered into this treasury of song, it was thrilling to learn more about my father through his great love for the music. I learned to play guitar from my stepmother's sister Helen, from Mother Maybelle Carter, and from Carl Perkins, all of whom were on the road with dad at the time. Each day I spent many hours in dressing rooms, practicing chords and the old songs they taught me. I discovered a passion for songwriting that remains undiminished to this day and that led me into my life as a writer and singer -- into my family's vocation."
Last year, three-and-a-half decades later, Rosanne -- by then herself a star of considerable brilliance -- recorded a dozen of those songs on an album called "The List," a surpassingly beautiful piece of work that "represents a kind of resolution, of so many seemingly disparate but intimately related themes and struggles in my life, both musical and personal." It is her way "to say yes" to his legacy, and: "I wish he had been alive to hear The List, and to see me say yes to all of it, and more than that, to revel in it as if it were a secret passed from parent to child, and a key to a particular familial mystery."
As by now you doubtless have figured out, from the passages quoted above, Rosanne Cash isn't just a writer and performer of songs, she's a writer, period. By the time she was a seventh-grader at a Catholic school in California, an assignment she wrote "on metaphors and similes" turned the corner for her. Reading it years later, "I could feel the thrill of my twelve-year-old self coming off the page, a nascent writer in love with language as if language were a potential lover." Indeed, a metaphor she created for that paper found its way, years later, "into a song I was writing, 'Sleeping in Paris.' " This is how she describes her evolution as a writer and performer:
"I have been lucky. I have also been driven by a deep love and obsession with language, poetry, and melody. I had first wanted to be a writer, in a quiet room, setting depth charges of emotion in the outside world, where my readers would know me only by my language. Then I decided I wanted to be a songwriter, writing not for myself but for other voices who would be the vehicles for the songs I created. Then, despite myself, I began performing my own songs, which rattled me to the core. It took me a long time to grow into an ambition for what I had already committed myself to doing, but I knew I could be good at it if I put my mind to it. So I put my mind to it."
Her resistance to performing was real and deep. The "draining, peripatetic life my dad was leading" did not appeal to her, and the "bone-crushing exhaustion, the constant vulnerability to media misinterpretation or even slander, and the complete obliteration of any semblance of a private life were not things I wanted for myself," but "I just kept doing it until it felt like home. I worked out a lifetime of self-doubt and musical and emotional vulnerabilities under the spotlight." In time she realized that "the arena I thought was a circus of humiliation actually held half the available light of what was intended for me, for my whole life."
It hasn't always been a smooth ride. As a girl she had to cope with "my father's drug addiction and the collapse of my nuclear family, the two central catastrophic events of my childhood, which have cast their long shadows over my life since." Her first marriage, to the gifted songwriter and singer Rodney Crowell, produced three daughters to whom she is devoted, but it ended in divorce; "ultimately, we both had to belatedly grow up, and we recognized that we couldn't do it together." Subsequently, she married John Leventhal, a producer, with whom she has one son. The serenity of her happy new marriage was interrupted three years ago when she underwent complicated and risky brain surgery; recovery was long and difficult though ultimately successful, "but I don't recommend it as an elective adventure."
Now in her mid-50s, Cash has learned life's lessons well. "We all need art and music like we need blood and oxygen," she writes. "The more exploitative, numbing, and assaulting popular culture becomes, the more we need the truth of a beautifully phrased song, dredged from a real person's depth of experience, delivered in an honest voice; the more we need the simplicity of paint on canvas, or the arc of a lonely body in the air, or the photographer's unflinching eye." Amen to that, and amen as well to this beautiful and stirring book, of which one thing can be said for sure: Dad would have been proud of it, and her.