(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
When I first met Rosanne Cash years ago, it was in Johnny Cash’s New York City apartment, high above Central Park South. I was there to interview her for Rolling Stone. Her first U.S. album, Right or Wrong, was about to be released. I found her to be smart, funny and irreverent. And gorgeous, with her spiky eggplant-purple hair shining bright. I felt she was a kindred spirit then, and she has not disappointed me over the years.
Since that time, she became a country music star, married twice, gave birth to three daughters and a son, left Nashville for New York City and broader musical horizons, became a respected author, underwent brain surgery and lost a stepsister and lost her mother, Vivian Liberto. She also lost her father and her stepmother, June Carter Cash. She has become a mature woman.
Now, she’s written a memoir of her life. I pleasantly found that reading it is pretty much like sitting down and having a long, enjoyable conversation with Rosanne. Which is a good way to write. But it’s not easy to do.
Composed is disarmingly casual and short (245 pages in all, including all the non-text pages of notes, etc.). But she gets to the good stuff quickly — and often. Along the way, she almost offhandedly shows how life in the Carter-Cash world is not always what it seems to the outside observer. Life in the shadow of a towering legacy is fraught with perils.
She writes eloquently about her fairly miserable childhood as a “butterball” and about her role in acting as the caregiver for her sisters because of her mother’s moods and her largely absentee father. “At five feet four and ninety-eight pounds, my mother was a nervous slip of a woman who lived on Winston cigarettes and coffee. She was deeply distracted by worry and rage about my father, who was not only constantly traveling, but also unfaithful and at the time using massive amounts of amphetamines and barbiturates.”
Rosanne and her mother became close after Vivian and Johnny divorced, and both parents remarried into happy unions. Johnny and June Carter became a famously-bonded couple, and Rosanne grew close to her father. When Rosanne graduated from high school, Johnny took her on the road with him for months on end, where she learned to play guitar from the likes of tourmates Helen Carter of the Carter Sisters and Carl Perkins. During that time, Johnny compiled “The List” of 100 great songs that she should learn, which ultimately yielded her most recent album, titled The List.
Of the dissolution of her own marriage to Rodney Crowell, a marriage that everyone in Nashville felt was ordained by Heaven and which produced three daughters (they also raised a daughter from Crowell’s first marriage), Rosanne writes wryly, “Unfortunately, we … were too similar. While we ruminated dreamily on philosophy and music and metaphysics and art, neither of us knew where to find a post office or how to change the oil in the car or whether we even owned a key to the front door of the house.”
Rosanne is also one of the people who has had the credentials over the years to challenge some country dictates. Her music ideals changed even as she was recording the album King’s Record Shop, which yielded four No. 1 singles. She had a nightmare involving Linda Ronstadt, in which someone accused Rosanne of being a dilettante. That tilted her into changing her life. “I had been growing uneasy in my role in the Nashville community and the music business as a whole. I thought of myself primarily as a songwriter, but I had written only three songs on King’s. I was famous and successful, but it felt hollow, and the falsehoods were piling up.” She refused to form a fan club or to “act as if the country music scene were a religion to which I belonged.”
Her break from Nashville and her move to New York were, in the end, what she felt she needed. And that has proved to be true, in her life and career. The final days with Johnny and June and their deaths and funerals are described graphically and emotionally. Ultimately, out of all the family funerals, Rosanne writes, “With time, the unbearable becomes shocking, becomes sad and finally becomes poignant.”
Along the way, Rosanne drops tiny tidbits like they were bonbons. For example, I never knew that she never visited the actual King’s Record Shop in Louisville, Ky. The famous cover picture of her in the store’s door way (the album cover itself won a Grammy for art direction) was a construct. Hank DeVito digitally inserted a photo of Rosanne into a picture of the store.
Her life story is a very good read. I’ll leave you with the best three words from Composed: “Repertoire is destiny.”