ST. LOUIS — The insecure little girl who was afraid of snakes grew up with an absentee father she adored, and a mother who lived with a broken heart after their divorce. Rosanne Cash made herself a respected, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, but it took years and a lot of work. Language was her savior.
Cash, the oldest of four girls born to music legend Johnny and Vivian Liberto Cash, has been around music her entire life. As she writes in her moving memoir "Composed," now out in paperback, she was born in 1955, a month before the release of her father's first Sun Records single, "Cry, Cry, Cry," a month before the world began stealing Johnny Cash's attention.
Her father still casts a huge shadow, over his daughter's life as well as popular culture. The temptation is to dwell on the intersection of father and daughter; "Composed" is about Rosanne Cash's life, but if she had been the daughter of an accountant, this memoir probably wouldn't exist, at least not yet. The tension in the book comes from the little girl loving a dad who loved her back but who belonged to the world.
With all that, it wasn't a given that Rosanne Cash would be a musician. She didn't reject her father's business, she was just enthralled with language; she wanted to be a writer of prose, not a songwriter, and she grew up a voracious reader who loved "that interior, quiet world of writing prose alone." Where did that love of language come from?
"Oh, I don't know. What is DNA?" Cash said by phone from her home in New York City, two days after the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and one day after the eighth anniversary of her father's death.
"My mother was not a great reader. My father was, but I had to intuit that when I was young because he was on the road so much. But my love of reading was really early. I asked my mother to drop me at libraries on Saturday. So I have to think part of that is just who I was born as."
Cash has recorded 14 albums and scored 21 Top 40 country singles. Her most recent CD is "The List," an album of songs that are part of a list her father gave her of the 100 songs he said all serious country artists should know. She has also published a book of short stories and a children's book, and has written essays and fiction for publications including Rolling Stone and The New York Times.
She has lived in New York since 1995 with her husband, musician John Leventhal, and their son Jakob. She also has four daughters with her ex-husband, country singer Rodney Crowell.
A thoughtful and literate songwriter, Cash has created a memoir of grace and beauty, honesty and dignity. But it was not something she ever expected to do. (When the Johnny Cash biopic "Walk the Line" was released in 2005, Rosanne Cash, who is not a fan of the film, fled the country for Europe.)
"And then a few things happened," she says. "My parents died. It seemed my parents' story was being co-opted right and left, and I never had any desire to set the record straight — No. 1 because there were too many records to set straight and I kind of thought it was beneath my dignity — but then I thought my version of my story has at least as much right as anybody's to be out there."
After a health scare in 2007 that resulted in brain surgery, Cash decided that the memoir would be her top priority during and after recovery.
"I didn't have any interest in writing a celebrity tell-all, hurting anyone, dishing any dirt, putting in any salacious details that would sell more books," she says. "I felt I could write about my life and keep it dignified and with integrity and be somewhat poetic, and still keep private the things I wanted to keep private.
Cash portrays her parents; her stepmother, June Carter Cash; and other members of her world as complete and, therefore, flawed people. She writes with candor but without judgment about her father's absences and about his years of struggle with amphetamines and painkillers. But she holds back some details.
"I left out specifics about when my parents' marriage was falling apart. I left out the specifics of my own divorce because I have four children with that guy and I didn't think it was respectful to the kids," she says. "It's complicated, and I wanted to do it with respect."
Cash's most personal albums are "Interiors" (1990), about the breakup of her marriage to Crowell, and "Black Cadillac" (2006), which deals with her stepmother's death in May 2003, her father's death the following September and her mother's death in May 2005. It is a stunning song cycle reflecting the stages of grief, and the songs are somewhat uncharacteristic for her.
"I've disguised things in song that were incredibly personal or painful," she says. "Poetic license has cast a spell over those things, so it doesn't feel as naked. The only time I really felt naked was on 'Black Cadillac.' Because all of the details and artifacts were real and it was much more journalistic in that way. So I had a moment of panic before it came out."
In "Composed," Cash, who says she is fascinated with theoretical physics and the concept of time as an artificial construct, describes songs as "postcards from the future."
"It's not a surprise to me when I reference something in a song that becomes clear later on, or that happens later on," Cash says. "It's not like a psychic thing, but it's outside of linear time. ... Sometimes writing songs feels like taking dictation, or like it's out there and you're trying to grope for it in fog, and it's already complete out there. That's why it's so important to have your skills refined, so you can find it."
September is a difficult month for Cash. In addition to the anniversaries of the deaths of her father and stepmother, she is forced to relive Sept. 11, 2001. It was the second day of seventh grade for her daughter Carrie. They took a taxi to St. Luke's School in Greenwich Village; Carrie went to class, and Mom went to the cafeteria for a parents meeting.
About 8:45, Cash writes, "the sound of a plane suddenly filled the cafeteria, heading south, very low and very loud. ... The building rumbled. ... Seconds later I heard a faint boom, like a distant construction blast."
As the disaster unfolded, parents and children left the school; Cash could not get a signal on her cell phone, could not find a taxi or an available pay phone, so she and Carrie walked home. Cash kept Carrie from looking back as they hurried home.
This year, the 10th anniversary of 9/11, "was particularly hard for me," Cash says. "I spent the whole day in tears, it was really tough, and I kept going over and over what happened, how it felt, the sound of the plane, which will never, ever leave my thoughts. All the while thinking that well, my dad will be gone eight years tomorrow ..." Her voice trails off.
"Yesterday, I tried to focus on just being grateful for this life, instead of that crushing sense of loss. And last night, I suddenly felt that Dad wanted to hear the sound of his own voice," Cash says, laughing.
"So I put on (Johnny Cash's box set collection) 'Unearthed.' I was actually laughing out loud because it was such a powerful feeling, like, well, he still enjoys the sound of his own voice. I listened to him for an hour or so, and it was great. I felt a real connection and almost acceptance."
"Composed" by Rosanne Cash; Penguin (245 pages, $16 paperback)