Inspired by death, Rosanne Cash sings with life

by Walter Tunis

McClatchy Newspapers

4 December 2006


Browse through the luminous reviews of Rosanne Cash’s recent album, “Black Cadillac,” and you might suppose the music was a memorial. And, in part, you would be right.

But what has become one of her best-received recordings, as well as a work that has revitalized the visibility of her performance career, is more than that. Sure, its inspirations are profoundly personal - specifically the deaths of her father (country icon Johnny Cash), stepmother (June Carter Cash) and mother (Vivian Liberto) within two years. Not surprising, a sense of loss drives the very human themes of the record’s best songs.

But “Black Cadillac” is not, as Cash herself almost jokingly calls it, “a death record.” Within its songs are suggestions of affirmation and solace. And the more she takes those songs to the stage, the more those elements emerge.

“In the beginning, I was a little nervous about even performing `Black Cadillac,’” said Cash. “I felt some people might be expecting a very somber kind of performance. But there’s a lot of light in these songs. There’s joy and transcendence. But ultimately, it’s music. It’s not a diary. It’s not a memorial service. There’s a backbeat. And best of all, audiences bring their own stories to this music.”

In a recording career that already has seen the release of several extraordinary albums - including 1981’s “Seven Year Ache,” 1988’s “King’s Record Shop” and 1990’s “Interiors,” all of which were re-issued in late 2005 - “Black Cadillac” is a triumph. But it’s also more an elegy than a eulogy.

Even when the references to her parents seem more exact, as in “House on the Lake” or “Like a Wave,” “Black Cadillac’s” songs are like open fields. They don’t present stories of loss and hope so specifically as to shut the listener out. The emotive fabric resonates, but not in a crass, overtly sentimental way. These are songs of real life - and, yes, death.

“I had that moment before the record came out where I kind of clutched and said, `God, there is just too much documentary detail here. I can’t put it out.’ But people are going to interpret what they will from these songs. In that sense, I don’t think what I’m doing is any different from the work of a painter, a dancer or a novelist. The songs, to me, are still of one piece. But they keep evolving.

“‘Black Cadillac’ has been the most satisfying work of my life. And even that is ironic, because it’s also been one of the hardest things, emotionally and workwise, I’ve ever done.”

But the work hardly stopped once recording sessions for “Black Cadillac” were complete. With most new albums comes some degree of touring. Cash intended to promote and tour her project extensively. She already has spent much of 2006 performing “Black Cadillac’s” music on two continents and plans to keep touring well into the spring of 2007.

“Our plan from the beginning was to work this record for 18 months,” she said. “And I’m happy with that. This is fun, you know? That’s the thing. What I’m doing is not drudgery at all. Playing this music every night is inspiring.”

To that end, the highlights of Cash’s touring year could fill a scrapbook. In August, she met veteran soul singer Bettye LaVette, who recorded Cash’s “Interiors” tune “On the Surface,” at the Newport Folk Festival. That same month, Cash taped a live session with longtime pal Steve Earle for Country Music Television’s series “Crossroads.” Then, in October, she invited Elvis Costello to harmonize on her father’s famed “Big River” at Carnegie Hall. Costello returned the favor in November and had Cash help him sing the renegade folk classic “The Butcher’s Boy” on “The Late Show With David Letterman.”

“Those kinds of opportunities came my way this year more than in any year of my life,” Cash said. “And I’ve enjoyed them more than I possibly could have before because I feel a level of confidence now with my work.

“I mean, I’m 51 now. You get to a level of mastery with what you do at my age that feels comfortable. That goes for performing, too. I’m definitely happier with that. I enjoy the moment of it, the spontaneity of it. I’m just more at home with that whole playground now.”

Did some of that confidence come rolling Cash’s way, by chance, in a big “Black Cadillac”?

“Oh, I think so. I’d be kidding myself if I said it didn’t. Even if we had gotten terrible reviews and people hadn’t responded as they did to it to the record, I’d still be out there plugging away. But it sure is nice when people validate what you do.”

Topics: rosanne cash
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