If the death of a parent can leave the survivor unmoored in a sea of questions and doubts, the passing of a beloved stepmother, father and mother within little more than two years must have felt like drowning. Yet Rosanne Cash discovered that tribulation had thrown the artist within her a lifeline, that extended grieving was inspiring her to grapple with the mysteries of life, loss and love on a deeper, richer level than ever before.
Coming to terms with death might well be the ultimate challenge of life, and it’s a lesson that permeates the most ambitious and compelling album of Rosanne Cash’s career. Black Cadillac — released January 24 on Capitol — is the album she had to write, even if she didn’t always understand what she was writing.
Take the title cut, the kickoff track that provides a thematic linchpin to the album. “One of us gets to go to heaven, one has to say here in hell,” sings Cash with chilling conviction, in a lyric that sets a funeral procession to the ominous throb of bass and atmospheric keyboards (by Benmont Tench, brilliant throughout the album). Though the song achieves even greater resonance through the universal regard for the late Johnny Cash, it wasn’t inspired by any of the family funerals Rosanne attended. Instead, it anticipated them. It seems that art — like life, like God — moves in mysterious ways.
“I’d been toying with that image for a little while, thinking of the metaphor, and also thinking of the black Cadillacs of my childhood,” Cash explains. “My parents only had black Cadillacs. And I thought how perfectly the whole thing melded, the childhood Cadillacs, the last Cadillac that drives you away — and what a perfect metaphor it was for them.
“It wasn’t that different from how any song comes about, wherever that inspiration comes from, but it was a little alarming when I wrote it, a little upsetting. It had this sense of foreshadowing to it. And then, six weeks later, June died.”
The death of 73-year-old June Carter Cash on May 15, 2003, following complications from surgery to replace a heart valve, blindsided her family and the country music community at large. Johnny had been the sick one. June was his rock. As big of a shock as it had been when June died, it surprised no one when Johnny followed her five months later.
Between her composition of “Black Cadillac” and the writing of the deceptively buoyant “Dreams Are Not My Home” during the final months of her dad’s life, Rosanne knew that a thematic context had taken root for a conceptual song cycle. Father and daughter had already addressed the issue of his mortality on “September When It Comes”, their first duet, recorded for Rosanne’s 2003 album Rules Of Travel. The song began to seem like prophecy when Johnny died on September 12 of that year. After that, the material came in a flurry, with “Like A Wave”, “The World Unseen” and “God Is In The Roses” extending the spiritual reflection of Rosanne’s mourning.
Those songs also provided a way for her to reclaim her story, her father and his legacy, rescuing the man from the myth, the truth from the legend. As Rosanne said so eloquently at her father’s funeral, “I can almost live in a world without Johnny Cash, because he will always be with us. I cannot imagine a world without Daddy.”
If anything, the mythic stature of Johnny Cash looms all the larger since his death. To make him more than a man is to make him less than a man. For all the strengths of the well-received Walk The Line biopic — particularly the performance by Reese Witherspoon as June and the musical direction of T Bone Burnett — the big screen tends to reduce the complexity of Johnny Cash’s life and art to a romantic fairy tale: an impetuous pill-popper saved by the love of a good woman. In the process, Vivian Liberto, Rosanne’s mother and Johnny’s first wife, becomes a dramatic foil, a plot device, an integral part of what June needs to rescue Johnny from. For a daughter who loved her very private mother as much as she did her very public father, the movie was painful to watch.
“That film was not made for me and my sisters,” she says. “I think it’s a nice movie with good actors and somewhat factual, but I have absolutely no need to see my childhood done Hollywood-style. That’s not entertainment to me — to see my parents break up again and my father’s addiction. And my mother absolutely hated the prospect of it. How can you blame her? She didn’t want to see her worst nightmare redone for the screen.”
Her parents divorced when Rosanne was 11. Her mother died on May 24, 2005 — Rosanne’s 50th birthday. Cash delayed the release of Black Cadillac from last fall until early 2006 so it wouldn’t be considered part of the whole Johnny Cash mythmaking machine. The last thing she’d want anyone to think is that this is a Johnny Cash tribute album. It’s as much about her mother and stepmother as it is about her father. But mostly it’s a powerfully personal meditation on love and mortality — on what dies and what endures.
“It’s all about my experience, my psychic terrain and my own music,” she explains. “It’s about loss, but it’s also about ancestry and personal history, and it’s about renegotiating relationships when one person’s not in the body anymore. It’s about the survival of love. It’s certainly not going to be marketed as something about Johnny Cash.”
Yet it’s difficult to extricate Rosanne’s own music from the inspiration of her father, the man whose art — steeped from the start in mortality, sin and redemption — so profoundly influenced her own. Not that she tried to write like her dad, or even thought that she could. She was raised comfortably in California rather than dirt poor in the south. She absorbed the influences of the 1960s and ’70s as her dad had the ’40s and ’50s. She followed her dad’s example by making music that is as true to her own experience as Johnny Cash’s was to his.
“As a child I was deeply moved by his music and interested in his themes,” she remembers. “I remember listening obsessively to Ballads Of The True West and for the first time understanding what a concept record was and thinking how great it was to do a record about one subject. And I had so much respect for him as a songwriter. I kind of dismantled ‘Big River’ at some point in my life and just looked at why it worked as a song, why it was so brilliant. I still think it’s one of the greatest American songs ever written.