Rosanne Cash Builds Black Cadillac From Shards of Grief

Personal Tragedies Prompt Singer-Songwriter to Explore Universal Themes

Rosanne Cash says she knew from the outset that her intensely personal Black Cadillac would arouse more public curiosity about her own life than she was willing to satisfy. Created as a memorial to her father Johnny Cash, stepmother June Carter Cash and mother Vivian Liberto Cash Distin — all of whom died within a two-year span — the album reveals Cash’s nearly overwhelming sense of loss.

“It certainly crossed my mind that I was opening myself to questions about how much [of the album] was documentary and how much was poetry,” Cash tells by phone from her home in New York. “I certainly did think about it. But, at the same time, I think that the themes are so universal that it almost doesn’t matter what’s particular to my life. … People can bring their own lives to this subject very easily.”

Still, some interviewers wanted to probe well beyond the album’s universal concerns.

“Some guy today asked me about my parents’ divorce and how I felt as a child,” Cash reports, “and I just had to say, ’That has absolutely nothing to do with this record.’ Yeah, they want to go into more personal territory, but I’m pretty good about drawing the line.”

While she agrees that she should take her intended audience into account when she’s writing songs, Cash says she wrote this album primarily for herself.

“I mean, I wanted to make a good record that people would like and everything,” she asserts. “But it was more important that I got this record down exactly the way I wanted to.

“I tend to think that good lyrics and a good song is accessible no matter what the documentary detail is. I did an interview with somebody the other day, and he said, ’You know, we all have our “House on the Lake” [the title of one of the songs referring to her father’s home near Nashville].’ And it’s so true. Even though it’s very specific about a very specific house, everybody who’s lost a childhood home can relate to that notion.”

Supported though she is by an array of fine musicians, Black Cadillac is very much Cash’s creation. She wrote the lyrics to all 12 songs and the music to all but four of them. (Her husband, producer and musician John Leventhal, aided her on those four.) In these songs, Cash is tethered to her grief like an animal. She can move and see and imagine but never actually break the leaden leash. Her consolation, such as it is, lies in recalling and imagining happy scenes — past and future — while she paces the bleak emotional landscape of the present.

Cash wrote only two songs that didn’t make the album. “That was just because the quality of the songs wasn’t up to the standards of the other ones,” she says.

The act of putting the album together brought her a measure of relief, Cash concedes. “It helped me make sense of [the loss] — even if it was just for that moment. I found that bringing structure and a rhyme scheme and a sense of poetry and rhythm to this subject was really useful. It made things feel manageable that before had felt unmanageable.”

Johnny Cash’s health had been in steady decline and his death expected throughout the final years of his life, but his daughter says she was surprised at the intensity of grief she felt when the end finally came. “Absolutely. I talked to friends of mine who’d had a parent who was sick for a long time, and everyone seems to agree that no matter how prepared you think you are, you’re just not. The shock of losing a parent is profound.”

Cash was one of the brightest stars at Columbia Records in 1986 when the label dropped her famous father from its roster. “It was more than awkward,” she recalls. “It was painful. I felt terrible. I felt helpless, too. I thought it was an enormous mistake. I just felt bad for my dad.

“As it turns out, if I could have looked back at that [event] 20 years down the road, I would say now that it was good because it eventually led him to Rick Rubin [who produced his triumphant comeback albums]. … I think it’s just phases and stages of an artist’s life — that Dad was going through a period of fallowness, in a way, that he probably had to go through to get to where he ended up.”

Nothing in Black Cadillac alludes to Johnny Cash’s droll sense of humor. Thus the question arises, Was it there during his last years? “After June died, not so much,” Cash says. “He was just stricken with grief. I guess that was the only time in his life when I saw him lose some of his humor. It was just so sad.”

Having a new album usually means going on tour to support it, but Cash says she isn’t ready to hit the road just yet. “I will, but, you know, I’ve got a little child in first grade. So I’m not doing much touring until he gets out of school for the summer. There are some scattered things through the spring, but not too much.” She has, however, selected the members of her touring band. It will include Leventhal, an all-purpose instrumentalist, plus Sean Pelton on drums, Zev Katz on bass and Larry Campbell on guitar.

Cash, who’s also a published short story writer, says she’s not sure this album will end her artistic ruminations about deaths in her family.

“It probably hasn’t exhausted what I want to say,” she adds with a laugh, “but I’m exhausted. It was an exhausting project. It really was. And I’m still in it. So I haven’t thought about what I’m going to write next.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to