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Rosanne Cash shares her pain

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http://www.rctimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/ar ... 5/MTCN0303

Sunday, 04/16/06

Rosanne Cash shares her pain

'Black Cadillac' isn't so much the story of a famous family as it is of a grieving daughter


Staff Writer

GLENSIDE, PA. — The sign on the Keswick Theatre marquee said ''Kristofferson & Cash,'' a billing that caused passers-by to check the date and make sure it was April 2, 2006, and not the day or decade before.

Hours before playing the co-billed show with Country Music Hall of Famer Kris Kristofferson, Rosanne Cash pondered Kristofferson's willingness to integrate politics and music.

''Kris has nothing to lose, and, truthfully, neither do I,'' said the 50-year-old, whose current album, Black Cadillac, is not distinguished by its themes of ancestry, of loss, of memory and transcendence. It is distinguished by the emotional clarity she brings to those themes and by the universality she manages even as she writes about the aftermath of the deaths of her mother, Vivian Liberto Distin, her stepmother, June Carter Cash, and her father, the iconic Johnny Cash.

''Who do I need to please? Nobody,'' she continued. ''Who do I need to rebel against or report to? Nobody, anymore. That's the thing about losing your parents. No one to rebel against, nobody to report to.''

Cash speaks such words with a combination of frailty, resignation and matter-of-factness. She spent much of her early artistic life trying to make her way around her father's shadow, only to find that shadows can serve as blankets.

''I miss the sounds of Tennessee and the smell of heavy rain,'' she writes in House on the Lake, a song set at John and June's Hendersonville estate, recently sold to pop star Barry Gibb. ''I hear his voice, I follow down the velvet undertow/ Back to the place where I was born/ Back to my Southern home.''

Cash is a New Yorker now, and has been for a decade and a half. She's happy there, living in the Chelsea area and married to producer/guitar virtuoso John Leventhal.

She was born in Memphis, where her parents' marriage began to dissolve and where her father's career began to rise. Most of her Tennessee memories, though, are of Middle Tennessee, a place that holds complicated memories of the house on the lake, the early phases of her recording career, a difficult but creatively fulfilling marriage to singer-songwriter luminary Rodney Crowell and an exit from a country music mainstream through which she'd scored hits in the '80s including Seven Year Ache, The Way We Make a Broken Heart, Tennessee Flat-Top Box, Blue Moon With Heartache and Runaway Train.

Raised in Los Angeles, Cash felt herself something of an outsider to Nashville's industry-peculiar modus operandi.

''I didn't realize there was this game to play, a line to tow and you were on the road this many days a year and you treated your fans like this and you dress like this and you showed up at this and at that,'' she said. ''I just didn't get it. I wasn't rebelling against it, I just didn't even know it was there.''

Following her string of hits and facing the end of her marriage to Crowell, Cash released the sparse, folksy Interiors album in 1990. The record company, Columbia's Nashville division, balked at the album's less-than-commercial nature. Company brass said country radio wouldn't play it, Cash said Interiors was the direction she was heading, and ultimately she was told, ''Thanks, we'll miss you.''

In Nashville, the turn of that decade saw numerous changes. The rootsy, lyric-heavy country movement that Steve Earle referred to as Music City's ''credibility scare of the 1980s'' was over, and artists such as Cash, Crowell, Earle, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith were no longer considered part of country's hip mainstream. Cash and Crowell had been that movement's power couple — the Tim and Faith of the pre-Americana set — and now that scene and marriage were dissipating.

''To end a 12-year career with a handshake and a 20-minute conversation was sad,'' she said. ''It was difficult for me, and I was also in the process of getting a divorce and moving to New York. It was a huge time of change for me.

''Then I started reading these things about how I'd turned my back on Nashville and I was the one that was bitter. It was hurtful, because it went with a lot of ugly rumors that I was having affairs, that I was a ****, that I was . . . there was so much I read that I couldn't believe. But, you know what, it was good. Clearing that house. Open the widows.''

Those windows stayed wide open for the next few years. Cash fell in love, married Leventhal and released two albums that were critically hailed but commercially tepid. She turned to short fiction, writing a book of short stories. (Since then, she has written a children's book and compiled a book of prose efforts by celebrated songwriters.)

''These things opened up a whole new world for me,'' she said. ''Commercial failure is one of the best things that can happen to you after you've been successful. Really, it is.''

There is, of course, family history to back her notion about the benefits of failure. Some of Johnny Cash's most remarkable recordings came after he had been deemed commercially expendable by Music Row decision makers. The father hooked up with California-based producer Rick Rubin in the 1990s and made his thrilling series of ''American Recordings.'' The daughter anchored in New York and honed her skills in prose and in song-poems.

''The future's like a ringing bell,'' she wrote in Dreams Are Not My Home from Black Cadillac. ''The road to good intentions wanders all the way through hell.''

Last year, Sony Legacy reissued several of Rosanne Cash's Nashville-based albums. Cash examined 25 years of her back catalog for the first time in recent memory, listening to songs like most people pull out books of old family photographs or re-read letters that had been long ago stuffed in drawers. The recordings were marks on a timeline. Interiors seemed like a point of embarkation, not a dead end. And Cash could live well with the whole thing.

''I still think of myself as a new artist in some ways, and I know that sounds strange,'' she said.

Tributes abounded in the wake of the deaths of Johnny and June Carter Cash. Some of these existed because there is money to be made from rosy memories, others for less crass reasons, but the fact was that Americans were more likely to wear Cash T-shirts, watch Cash on television or look at Cash billboards after Sept. 12, 2003, than before. Cash's children walked their own line, between appreciating the well-wishes and craving privacy.

''In normal circumstances, you would be allowed the time to process your grief, and then to get some distance so you can get back to your own life,'' Cash said. ''Me and my sisters and my brother, we've never gotten any distance.''

Strangers send songs they've written about Johnny Cash, or they approach Rosanne in bookstores or cafes with stories about her father and stepmother.

''It's sweet, and I respect that and it's an honor,'' she said. ''But it can get burdensome. I have to protect my own emotions, because I can't let myself be dragged to that place a dozen times a day. It's just too painful.''

Cash said this as she was preparing to stand before a mentor and hero (Kristofferson) and an audience of strangers and sing about her father's war years, the now-sold house in Hendersonville and her own grief.

As a veteran writer, she has found a way to make these things relatable to listeners who cannot know what it is to have family and fame so inter-woven, but as a person who wants to protect private emotions, the process would seem like leaving the keys in the ignition and the doors unlocked and hoping the car doesn't get stolen.

''Actually, the process helped bring a sense of order to these chaotic, overwhelming feelings,'' she said. ''To bring your discipline as a writer and a sense of poetry, it starts to make sense and to transcend just being your own thing.''

She recorded the songs, some with Leventhal and some with California producer Bill Bottrell, and determined their running order. Then, with the project ostensibly completed, on Cash's 50th birthday, her mother died of lung cancer. Six weeks later, she wrote Like Fugitives, and cried through the song's recording. It is the album's angriest song, with lyrics that seem to address her mother's worries about the Cash biopic Walk the Line (''She was so dreading the film,'' Rosanne said), in which Liberto Distin was depicted as less than supportive of Johnny Cash's music.

''The only truth believed in is the one up on the screen/ So we live our lives like fugitives when we were born to live like queens,'' Cash sings.

While her father and stepmother were well-loved public figures, Cash's mother eschewed fame.

''She was incredibly private,'' Cash said. ''She was first and foremost a mother. She didn't want a public life. But she was active in her church, she was president of her garden club, and the house she made was incredibly open and welcoming.

''You know, she developed relationships with disc jockeys because she'd call them up to tell them to play my records and she'd become friends with them.''

Leventhal was playing guitar in a Keswick Theatre stairwell, warming up for the show, while Cash talked about her mother. The world didn't know Vivian enough to grieve for her, which makes Cash's feelings no less intense. We are all famous to our friends, and many of us are icons to our children.

''Nobody is ever going to lose 'Johnny Cash,' '' she said that afternoon. ''So grief at losing my father is the same grief everyone experiences with the loss of a parent.''

When she took the stage and sang songs from Black Cadillac, the connection with the audience was not due to any sense of diary-reading or Cash mythologizing. It was due to the collective natures of loss, grief and confusion, and to the way a skillful writer and singer can evoke honest emotion.

Rosanne Cash gets mail sometimes from people who hear doubt in her lyrics, who fear she is fractured, who think she is hungry for salvation and who want to save her soul.

Then, on a glorious spring night in a Philadelphia suburb, she appears with her husband, stands up to a microphone, strums a guitar and sings, ''God is in the roses, and the thorns.''

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