COVER STORY: Cash is Queen
The intervening years between Rosanne Cash’s last Vancouver appearance in 2004 and this weekend’s gig at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival have been, in a word, crazy.
Actually, that’s an understatement. The space between then and now has been occupied by recovery — she underwent brain surgery for a rare, benign condition in 2007; reconciliation — she’s finally made amends with ex-husband, country singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell, and recently spent time in the studio with him and her current husband, musician/producer John Leventhal; and grief — her mother, Vivian Liberto, died in 2005, following her father and step-mother, country icons Johnny Cash and June Carter, in 2003.
It’s that long grieving process that has informed Cash’s last two albums: 2006’s Grammy Award-winning Black Cadillac was Cash’s personal goodbye to her parents, while her 2009 follow-up The List was the ultimate tribute to her father’s legacy — the elder Cash bestowed a list of 100 essential country songs to his daughter on her 18th birthday. Now, at 56 years old, the venerable singer/songwriter/author has just turned a critical eye on her own repertoire, hand-selecting the tracks for the recently released double album, The Essential Rosanne Cash, which spans 1978 to 2011. Cash spoke exclusively with WE, taking a look back at her career, the Carter family education, and her relationship with the Man In Black.
Obviously since the last time you were in town, lots of stuff has happened in your life. What role did writing play in getting you through?
Well, in the the redemptive role that hard work plays in your life. It does for me, anyway. In particular, it’s great for organizing yourself and your thoughts. It helped me make sense of things that, when I’m in the middle of them, felt really big and vague and like a fog. But then writing about them helped me step back. It also makes me feel connected to other people who have gone through the same things: loss, serious illness. You realize you’re not alone in this world.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
Oh God, I was young, 17 or 18 years old. All I remember is that it was very bad. (Laughs)
You picked the songs for The Essential Rosanne Cash. That seems like the car accident moment, where your life flashes before your eyes.
Yeah, it certainly did. But I feel at my age and at this point and how much work I’ve done that I was able to get an objective view of it. I mean, there were certainly moments where I went, “Oh God, listen to this snare! That big ’80s snare drum, couldn’t we have toned it down just a bit?” (Laughs) But I thought these are all really representative of who I was and the time I was working in and studio techniques and what musicians thought then. It’s all really true and representative. The very first one when I was only 20 or 21 years old, even 10 years ago, I think I would have just cringed and said, “Oh my God, I can’t put that out in the world, it sounds like, you know, a child’s third song she ever wrote!” But, I had a lot of fondness for that girl in listening to it. This is really the very beginning of all this work and it deserves to be there.
Why would one regret what you did back then? It’s helped shape who you are.
Well, if you’re just this engine of self-criticism, like you’re never good enough and you want to keep getting better, you start editing. (Laughs) If I could, I’d probably go back and remix my first record.
Are you naturally a reflective person, or is it agonizing to critique what you’ve done?
No, I’m naturally reflective. I have to pull myself out to look at the outside world more often. John, my husband, has taught me to do that more often. I was reflective to the point of imploding myself. (Laughs) Living in a single universe, it was really important to me to learn how to come out and be more social. I mean these are skills I taught myself: how to be in the world and not see everything as a metaphor for my internal life.
Yeah. Were you a poet originally?
Yes. Of course. (Laughs)
Your dad gave you the list when you were a teenager. Did it mean much to you then?
It did. I think if he had even given it to me two years earlier at 16, I wouldn’t have cared, but at 18 I was out on the road with him, I’d just learned to play guitar, I had an idea that I wanted to be a songwriter and I was spending the most intimate time with my dad. Ever. Since he got off drugs. So he was straight. It was a perfect storm of a perfect moment to give me that list. I took it seriously enough that I saved it for 35 years.
When you’re a teenager, you don’t always appreciate those kinds of things, or it takes a little bit longer.
Well, with many other things it did take a lot longer. But the music was always a way to connect, it was a language, it was currency. He gave me that list and I knew he was giving me himself.
You said you had just learned to play guitar then. Did you learn from your dad?
He showed me a couple things, but the people who really showed me how to play guitar were Carl Perkins and the Carters. Mostly Helen Carter. Anita, Maybelle and June showed me a couple things, but mostly Helen. Because they were all on the road with him that tour that summer and you know, we’d hang out in the dressing rooms and I’d get them to show me things and that’s how I learned. The reason my dad didn’t show me that much is because he was on stage when we were in the dressing rooms.
I love the idea of a backstage guitar clinic.
Not only a guitar clinic but an early American roots music song clinic. They taught me the Carter family lexicon, which, you know, is a tremendous gift.
From a feminist perspective, learning from all of these women to play and write is huge!
I agree. And that doesn’t happen that often. I don’t know anyone that that’s happened for: that a young songwriter receives an entire catalogue of music taught by four women, who were deeply steeped in and created this music. It’s such a gift.
You’re a prolific writer. Was that a direct response to your medically imposed silence when you had polyps on your vocal chords in 1998?
Well, I had already written a book of short stories, so it wasn’t like I hadn’t begun that yet, but yes, when I lost my voice, I started a cottage industry of writing essays. And then I just kept getting commissions to write essays for Rolling Stone, Martha Stewart Living, the Oxford American, it just grew and grew and grew.
Did it take a while to find a tone that worked?
Yeah, it did. It’s like groping through a forest at first. Well, I was trying to find the melody in prose. And, my own voice in the same way that I had at songwriting. It takes some time. I didn’t jump right into it. It’s work, it requires a lot of discipline. I love what Lillian Helman said: “I hate writing, but I love having written.”
Are you working on a new album of original material right now?
I’m writing right now. If I could get off the road, I could finish writing the record. It’s very hard for me to write on the road. I just wrote a song with Cory Chissell. He’s a great young writer. I’m also writing with Mike Doughty in a couple weeks. He’s really great. And, I’m writing something with Joe Henry and I’ve written a few by myself, so I’m getting there. I’m going to record hopefully this fall.
Is it too early to say what you’re writing about?
Well, I’ve noticed I’m writing about science and quantum physics. There’s a lot of poetry in physics. I wrote a song called “Particle and Wave” and I really like that. Since my brain surgery I’ve been particularly interested in neuroscience and quantum mechanics. That is religion to me. To just stand before the mysteries and go, “I don’t get it. But I love it.” (Laughs)
What makes a great songwriter?
Hmmm. Someone who doesn’t write about themes but writes about the specifics. Who can perfectly, seamlessly marry the lyric with the melody. And someone — I just don’t think with great songwriters it’s all about self-expression. That just gets so icky and narcissistic. If it is about self-expression, then you’ve got to have a lot of craft and a lot of skill to pull it off so it doesn’t just turn into a navel-gazing thing, you know? Someone who really has true discipline, who has worked on their skill and has a way around a back beat.
Rosanne Cash plays at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival July 16 on Stage 5, 2:40pm and on the Main Stage, 8:35pm. $40-$165 from TheFestival.bc.ca.