Rosanne Cash: Coming to terms with her inheritance
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 22, 2003) – As a member of the first family of American music, Rosanne Cash seems to have been fated or destined to be a performer. But she doesn’t always feel that way.

“That’s a big philosophical question, about fate and destiny,” said Cash earlier this week in a phone interview from her New York City apartment. “I think I was born a writer, but I don’t think I was born a performer, and therein lies the rub.

“That’s something I’ve been strugglihng with my whole adult life. Not that I hate it -- I love it once it’s going on. But I’ve had to overcome a natural reticence and shyness to do it.”

Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash will be doing it when she kicks off the summer season at MASS MoCA (413-662-2111) on Sunday at 8 in the Hunter Center, in a concert celebrating the opening of the exhibition, “Yankee Remix: Artists Take on New England.”

Shyness aside, over the last twenty years, Cash’s 11 albums have produced 11 number-one country hits and numerous accolades for songwriting and performance. Cash recorded her first album, “Right Or Wrong,” in 1979. Over the following decade, she worked closely with then-husband Rodney Crowell, who produced albums including “Seven Year Ache,” which yielded both country and pop hits, “Rhythm and Romance,” a widely-acclaimed fusion of country and pop, and “King’s Record Shop,” which generated four number one singles, garnering her Billboard’s Top Singles Artist honor in 1988.

For the last decade, Cash’s creative partner has been her husband John Leventhal. Best known for his work with Shawn Colvin, Leventhal helped navigate Cash’s turn away from Nashville and toward the more sophisticated, urban singer-songwriter, folk-pop sound of ‘90s albums like “The Wheel” and her latest album, “Rules of Travel,” which in only two month’s time has garnered Cash great critical acclaim.

“Rules of Travel,” however, almost didn’t get made. Complications from her 1998 pregnancy temporarily damaged her vocal chords. For more than a year after giving birth to her son, she could only speak in a rasp and, even after her voice returned, it took another year for her to be able to sing a full set of songs again.

“I was anxious in the last phases of making the record, and also when I lost my voice I was very anxious,” she said. “I thought, what’s the point? Does anyone want to hear a record by me? Why am I making it? But towards the end I really fully took it in and felt it was a really good piece of work to put out and hope it finds its audience.”

Cash’s voice is fully recovered and she has been given a clean bill of health from her voice doctor, who recently termed her vocal cords “gorgeous.”

“Rules of Travel” includes eight original songs by Cash, some co-written by Leventhal, and one co-written by Joe Henry and Jakob Dylan, son of Bob Dylan and leader of the rock band the Wallflowers. The album also includes a host of guest performers, including Steve Earle, Sheryl Crowe, Teddy Thompson (Richard Thompson’s son), and a man named Cash. Amazingly enough, her duet with her father on “September When It Comes” is her first recording with the legendary man in black.

Her father has been ill over the past few years with a degenerative neurological disorder. The family was devastated last week when Cash’s wife and singing partner, June Carter Cash, died from complications stemming from heart surgery earlier this month.

“He is, as you might expect, devastated,” said Cash about her father. “It’s going to take him a long time to come to terms with it.”

Rosanne Cash is the oldest daughter of Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian Liberto. Born in Memphis, she grew up in Ventura, Calif., where her parents moved when she was three. Upon high school graduation, Cash joined her father’s touring roadshow, and during that time she became close with June Carter Cash, a scion of the original first family of country music, the Carter Family.

“She was a tremendous influence on me, mostly personally, but professionally as well,” said Cash. “When I was on the road with them I saw her really natural way of relating to an audience. She was on the road her entire life. The road was her home. She was so comfortable moving from dressing room to dressing room and from town to town. She always found the best in everything and never complained about being exhausted or threw fits or tantrums. She was so old school and polite to everyone.

“For an Appalachian girl, she was incredibly worldly. She liked the best of things in life, and she taught me a lot about that. When I was nineteen and turned up my nose at caviar, she told me that I would love caviar, and she was right. She taught me about antiques, and how to drag your stuff around and do it gracefully. She was a wonderful, funny, really alive person. She lived very large.

“She also has this tremendous historical significance as well. She had this remarkable place in the lexicon of American music, but when you asked her about it, she’d say, ‘Oh, I’m just a mother.’”

Over the years, Cash has felt the historical significance of being the daugther of Johnny Cash and the stepdaughter of June Carter Cash as both an inheritance and a burden.

“It felt oppressive, particularly when I was younger and trying to get started on my own,” she said. “It’s a hell of a lot to live up to. But now it feels more like the comfort of being part of a tradition that far outweighs any false sense of expectations.”

Rather than having left country music behind, Cash feels like she’s finally come full circle to where she began.

“I think I’ve grown into what I started out to be on my first record, a singer-songwriter,” she said. “If it seems like I’m less connected to country, maybe I am, but I’m more connected to myself, which is just being a singer-songwriter.

“I think I still belong under the wider umbrella of folk music or American music. And actually, some of the things I do sound more country to me than what I hear on country music radio. I think it’s not so much a musical as a marketing definition any more.

“I don’t know if that’s sad; that’s just the way it is. We all know Hank Williams and Patsy Cline are country singers. Nothing will change that.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 23, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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