(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Johnny Cash is dead. Long live Johnny Cash. He’s got three albums moving on the charts right now. The new movie about his life continues to draw crowds. His spirit and myth remain very much alive.
And his essence lives on in an upcoming album from one of his daughters. Rosanne Cash remains one of the most distinctive voices in popular music, and she will be forever linked to her father and to her own country legacy. Her new Black Cadillac (due Jan. 24) is far and away the most personal work she has ever recorded.
In the span of two years, from 2003 to 2005, Rosanne lost her father, her mother, Vivian Liberto Cash, and her stepmother, June Carter Cash. And those losses obviously shook her to her core. Losing them led to some of the most intense soul-searching she’s ever poured into her songwriting here in Black Cadillac. The title song is about the final black Cadillac hearse that bore Johnny Cash’s body away, which reminded her of the black Caddys he used to drive (“You were always rolling/But those wheels burnt up your life”). The ghosts of her three parents hover ever close to these songs, and a palpable sense of grief and mourning infuse/suffuse them. In many ways, it’s a grief assuaged by acceptance and eventually even a celebration of their lives, but it remains a very real grief, nonetheless. “Now one of us gets to go to heaven,” she sings. “One of us has to stay here in hell.”
This is one of the most meaningful and musically significant works of her career. And it goes beyond the lyrics, as key as they are. Rosanne Cash has become increasingly musically proficient over the years, and her songs and arrangements more and more encompass musical influences ranging from country to classical to trance to gypsy to folk. I know she’s talked in the past about listening to such composers as the Estonian music composer Arvo Part, and I think I can hear some of his funereal, drone-like influences here.
Rosanne recorded half of this in New York with her husband, John Leventhal, producing. The other half was produced in Los Angeles by Bill Bottrell, best known recently for his work with Five for Fighting and earlier albums by Shelby Lynne and Sheryl Crow. The odd-numbered songs on the album were produced by Bottrell, and the even-numbered ones were produced by Leventhal.
Song after song references Johnny directly or indirectly, from “I Was Watching You” (“You never came back, but I know you tried”) to “The World Unseen,” a very haunting evocation of a mystical realm in which Rosanne sings, “I have a lock of hair and one-half of my heart so I will look for you between the grooves of songs we sing/Westward leading, still proceeding into the world unseen.” In “House on the Lake,” an ode to the Cash compound on Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville outside Nashville, she intones, “But I hear his voice close in my ear/I see her smile and wave/I’m blink and while my eyes are closed/They both have gone away.” Tiny sound bites of Johnny speaking pop up twice before songs.
In her liner notes to Black Cadillac, Cash writes that some of these songs were written with a “foreboding, some as an attempt to heal, some in anger, some in grief, some in defiance of the public appropriation of grief, some in gratitude for a shared experience, some in acceptance and some in denial, some in complete loss of faith and some in renewal of faith, some in confusion and sadness, and some in peace.” Writing them, she says, helped her to accept what she could understand as well as what she could not fathom.
Now, she writes, she understands, “Loss was a door to appreciation and to a new sense of my own ancestry. I also came to understand that relationships founded on love do not end when one person leaves the planet.”
For Rosanne Cash, missing Johnny Cash the Icon is one thing, but it’s missing Johnny Cash the Daddy that’s going to be the hardest.