In her introduction to her memoir Cash writes, “I dream of songs. I dream they fall down through centuries, from my distant ancestors, and come to me”. In many ways this memoir unfolds like a dream—seamlessly transitioning from one memory to the next like the best authors of our time—and you will fall into this book as easily as one of her albums.
If you’re expecting a tell all – a confessional from Johnny Cash’s daughter – don’t bother with this memoir. If you’re expecting the sadness or the whole, raw truth in the likes of Joan Didion or Elizabeth McCracken, this memoir may not be for you. However, if you love Johnny Cash, if you love Rosanne’s music and want a good story, Composed: A Memoir is lyrical and insightful and full of beautiful memories.
Cash knew, at a young age, that she “was a writer”, and that writing “would save her”. When she asked a deliveryman (carrying cakes, pies, tarts, and breads) how he brought his truck home at night and resisted the urge to eat its contents, he said “Well, if you’re around it all day, you want to get away from it when you go home,” and followed it with “Does your daddy sit around and sing all day when he comes off the road?” Rosanne’s answer: Well, no. But she recognizes now (and even then) that “it’s not just the singing you bring home,” that it’s “the constant measuring of ideas and words if you’re a songwriter, and the daily handling of your instrument if you are a musician, and the humming and scratching and pushing and testing of the voice, the revealing in the melodies if you are a singer.”
Cash’s lyricism plays on the page as if she’s on stage with guitar in hand. You can hear the music as you read.
What’s surprising are the relationships in the book. Cash and her father. Cash and her mother. Cash and the Carters. Her memories are vivid and rendered with a certainty that this is not the family we may have presupposed; not the people of the 2005 movie Walk the Line. For example, after her apartment was robbed in her early 20s, everything taken from her, her father sent her “a new piece of jewelry every week…a pair of pearl earrings would be accompanied by a note saying ‘My love is more precious than pearl earrings.’”
This memoir, Cash has said, started as a series of essays. She put the pieces together, and surprising (even to her), she had a story to tell. This story is not the story of a drug addicted absentee father and the lonely journey of his daughter. Instead, it’s quite the opposite. Johnny was integral in her formation as both a young woman finding her way in the world and as a father. Why would we question that? Because a movie said that was the truth? The truth, if you want it, is in the pages of this book: a coming of age story in the very best sense.
Vocal polyps prompted its writing, she admits. She couldn’t sing; thus, another outlet was found. Brain surgery gave her a sense of her life being “more than half over”, and because of that we have this honest, yet restrained account of the daughter one the most beloved and influential musicians of the 20th century.
Cash admits, “Documenting one’s life in the midst of living is a strange pursuit.” She always “wanted to live as beginner, and writing a memoir in some ways defies that notion”. Yet Cash doesn’t consider this a finished story. It’s “ongoing” and “there’s more to come…more is always to come.”
This memoir feels like a testimony: to music, motherhood, love, and the resilience of an artist. Reading it is like a dream. The kind you wake from and remember and scribble on a piece of paper so as never to forget.
Penning Songs, Penning Stories
Rosanne Cash, eldest daughter of the late Johnny Cash, singer, song-writer, short-story writer, and now memoirist, spent some time with me back stage in NYC before the panel: “Dylan in America” (a tribute to Bob Dylan) hosted by the center of Ethical Studies in Central Park West. Since 1991 Cash has released five albums, written two books and edited a collection of short stories. Her fiction and essays have been published in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Oxford-American, New York Magazine, and various other periodicals and collections. She won a Grammy in 1985 for her song, “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me”, and has received nine other Grammy nominations. She has had 11 #1 country hit singles, 21 Top 40 country singles and two gold records, and her memoir, Composed was recently released by Viking Press.
PopMatters: You’ve written a collection of stories, Bodies of Water, and now a memoir. Could you speak to the differing processes from a collection to a full-length book?
Rosanne Cash: Fiction from non-fiction? Mechanically it doesn’t differ; I’m looking for the same melody in prose as in music. Like E.L. Doctorow said…
PM: It’s like driving a car at night…
RC: Right. Sometimes you don’t know where you’re going, but you get there, eventually. But I did feel a responsibility to be as factual as I remember in the memoir.
PM: Which wasn’t the case in your stories?
RC: Right. There’s more play with scenes and characters that I can change in the short stories.
PM: Is it fair to assume your short stories are autobiographical? That’s to say, are they largely influenced by your life? Writers of this genre, after all, preach, “Write what you know”.
RC: Sure, but you can take poetic license with your characters in fiction. I made myself different characters in different stories. I was the same character in my memoir.
PM: But you won’t tell us. It’s the job of the reader (if they so wish) to figure out where you are in the stories, right?
PM: You’ve said before that you never intended to write a memoir, that it actually started as project because of a number of essays you were asked to write for numerous magazines. Aside from the essays, what prompted you to write this memoir?
RC: That’s easy. I lost my voice. I had vocal polyps. I had to stop singing; I had to shelve a record I was in the middle of making. So I started writing a lot of prose, and found I was commissioned to write more. New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, etc. And I wrote this piece for this defunct magazine called Jove. It was called “The Ties That Bind”: about family and music, and my editor (who’d edited my collection of stories) said, “That’s the beginning of a memoir.” I said, of course I’m too young to write a memoir. So at one point I thought I would never finish it; I just thought, I’ll keep compiling forever, and then I had brain surgery.
PM: Life changed then, in a big way?
RC: Yeah, life changes if you feel urgent about what you want to finish.
PM: I know that you’ve said you didn’t write the memoir to set any record straight; to solve any grievances, or to expose anyone, but that’s usually the type of memoir people are attracted to. Did this worry you?
RC: It’s appalling to me. That entire genre just appalls me. It embarrasses me. Those shows where people completely lose their dignity, and just vomit out their deepest selves for the entire world, I just find it appalling. I didn’t want to create that type of anxiety for myself, because it really makes me anxious to be that kind of naked, you know? I have a very strong sense of privacy, and, dignity I hope.
PM: Which is likely a product of your life as Johnny Cash’s daughter, right?
RC: Well it’s just who I am, wherever it comes from. So I wanted to not be anxious, but I also wanted to be able to look myself in the mirror and know that I didn’t hurt anyone with this book. To intentionally hurt someone is not in my nature.
PM: So you have no ego?
RC: No, no. I have a lot of ego, but I’d like to think that I’m also kind.
PM: I think we, as female artists, have to manage that level of ego with grace.
RC: Of course, but it’s only really insecure people who abuse people. It doesn’t mean that I’ve forgiven everybody, or I have some halo over my head, I mean there are people who I really haven’t forgiven yet, but I didn’t want to talk about that publicly. And the New York Times review has really troubled me, mainly, because he reviewed the book that I didn’t write. He wanted that tell-all, and that’s not what I wrote. And the fact that it was my overriding principle not to write that type of book, it just killed me that he didn’t see that. But the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post saw it, so…
PM: That’s the trouble - it’s all subjective, reviews, etc.
Walking Her Own Line
PM: I recently interviewed an editor from the New Yorker who said that putting together a collection of stories was very much like putting together an album. What do you think about this?
RC: Yeah, I would agree. I even think putting together my memoir was like putting together an album. I wrote a lot of these as separate pieces. It was only after the fact that I began connecting them. It’s like putting together a puzzle. Like the entire part about Oslo Prison; I wrote that separately without it ending in the hardware scene where I’m shopping with my father, so I had to add that to make it cohesive. But I had no idea, much like an album, that it would end up where it did: in a hardware store.
PM: Much like fictive characters, really. We put them on stage together, and sometimes we know where they’re going, but other times (most of the time) we learn as we go.
RC: Right. You see what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes they take these left turns and it’s like you didn’t see it coming. It’s really amazing, even when it’s really you, your memories. The book is more thematically related (like an album) than it is a linear timeline of my life. It’s not chronological.
PM: I wanted to talk a bit about The List, your latest album (inspired by the 100 list of essential songs Johnny gave to Rosanne as she began pursuing music)…
RC: Look at your shirt!
PM: (Laughing) Yeah, Betsey Johnson, I love her.
RC: Her partner is one of my best friends!
PM: Great. Please have her send me clothes anytime!
But back to The List. You don’t self-identify as a country artist, in fact, you’ve said you enjoy breaking the distinctions of genre, thus I wondered why make this album?
RC: It felt like the right time.
PM: How did you take from that list of 100 songs and cull the 12 that ended up on the album?
RC: The first decision was easy, which songs suited my voice, and which songs do I feel most comfortable singing. Then we took a scholarly approach to it, that’s to say if the record is going to be a microcosm of the actual list, than we have to have the Carter family, we have to have Hank Williams, Jimmy Rogers. Those performers needed to be put down.
PM: And still the album feels very modern. It’s you.
RC: It had to be. I couldn’t just ape the originals; I had to make them my own.
PM: I read that your father was upset that he’d raised you in Southern California instead of Tennesse…
RC: Yes, but he was the one who told me to go to New York when I was still trying to decide if I wanted to pursue music. He had an apartment on Central Park South. People are so misinformed about him; he loved New York.
PM: Speaking of misinformed, I was hoping you might weigh in on the 2005 film Walk the Line. Did it do justice to your family? Your mother is depicted as an almost villain-like character.
RC: It was painful. My mother had just died when it came out, and it was such a cartoon. It was such a one-dimensional narrative. And they do a disservice to my father by depicting his drug addiction and redemption from that, rather than the transcendent artist he was.
PM: So it upset you?
RC: No, I’m not upset. I liked the movie Ray, but his kids probably don’t.
PM: One last question: What are you working on now? What might your fans expect from you next? Another book? The sequel to your memoir? More from the “List”?
RC: Right now I’m touring a lot because of the book, because of The List, but my next project is a trio record with Billy Bragg and Joe Henry.
PM: Oh, I love Billy Bragg!
RC: Right?! Me too. Well we’re writing the songs now; Joe’s going to produce it and we’re recording the songs in March.
PM: So no more writing?
RC: Songs, yes, but not prose at the moment.
PM: But there’s more to come?
RC: Well I’m 55 and it’s a 250 page book. I have a lot more to say.