Rosanne Cash pens a rich memoir about her personal and musical journey

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2010

NEW YORK -- Rosanne Cash's parents didn't live to hear her side of the story. Not the official version, anyway. Not the smartly packaged, beautifully written memoir, "Composed," that arrives in stores Tuesday and serves up a rich, penetrating, often witty look at the life of the first daughter of Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian Liberto Cash Distin.

Her parents won't read this unblinking examination of her father's lifelong battle with narcotics addiction, the pain and bitterness her mother carried with her, their eventual divorce, her own self-doubt and anxiety, her failed marriage to Rodney Crowell, a devastating miscarriage, the months-long loss of her voice and the extensive surgery to relieve pressure on her brain stem in 2007 that required a year's recovery. Nor will they read the loving eulogies she wrote for each of them or her descriptions of the enormous pride she has in her own children, her happy marriage to -- and musical partnership with -- John Leventhal, and the strength she found in overcoming the obstacles she faced.

Sitting down for an interview in the offices of her record label last week, Cash, who has a dozen albums and 11 No. 1 country singles to her credit, said the book is the work of which she is most proud. And that her parents are not around to read it, she says, "is heartbreaking." Of course, if they were still around, she admits, she probably would not have been able to write it at all. Her mother's deep sensitivity and her own reluctance to hurt either of them kept her pen in check.

A decade in gestation, the 245-page book does not simply chronicle her life as the offspring of a legendary musicmaker or her own journey as a musician, writer, sister, wife and mother. Rather, it is a tale of paths she took that can also serve as a road map for anyone who has faced struggles, disappointments, even tragedy. In other words, a road map for anyone.

But writing a memoir was something of an odd decision in the first place for Cash, now 55. Growing up in the shadow of fame, she guarded her privacy. And as she became a successful and critically acclaimed artist in her own right, she insisted on a "real sharp demarcation between private and public."

"It's an emotional paradox for me," she says of writing the book. "But I've seen my own story co-opted, and I didn't want it co-opted. And it was time to step into my family legacy, ancestry, the things that have been passed on, what's in my DNA. Also, I'm a pretty good writer. I knew I could do something poetic with it."

As she talks, Cash is the picture of serenity and ease, clearly comfortable in her skin and quick to make others feel the same way. She has a warm laugh and broad smile, and her answers to questions are thoughtful and carefully considered. Nothing about her feels rote. Nothing feels false.

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In the book, there are areas of her life where she has chosen to reveal less rather than more. She does not delve into her breakup with Crowell, for instance, because she felt it would not be respectful to their children. And she studiously avoided taking shots at others, even when she was tempted to.

"Part of the power of the book is that it's not diluted by bitterness," she says. "I just couldn't. It went against everything that I think about integrity. . . . It's not that I don't harbor bitterness [laughs] or blame people, but to write about it publicly just seems cheap."

What Cash has left out, she says, doesn't change the big picture. And what she has left in is intimate and engaging.

She writes with a novelist's detail about her childhood, remembering herself "as a withdrawn, pudgy girl with a swollen face and a foggy head." And later she provides illuminating stories of her six-month sojourn to London as a young woman and about recording her various albums, including telling Crowell that the reworked version of her song "Real Woman," on "Interiors," sounded "like a [bleeping] Pepsi commercial."

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