Like best bodies in their 20s, Rosanne Cash in 1976 was casting about for what to do with the blow of her life. She didn’t appetite to go into the ancestors business, which was country music. Her ancestor was Johnny Cash; her stepmother was June Carter, and her stepgrandmother was Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family, but Rosanne didn’t appetite to absorb her activity on the affectionate of bout bus that had so generally taken her ancestor abroad from his family. She capital to be article actual different: a arcane author.
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At the end of that summer, she alternate from an internship with CBS Annal in London and enrolled at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University. She wrote a lot of balladry and abbreviate stories, as she had in her California aerial school, but she couldn’t assume to get the adhere of it. So afterwards a year of academy she confused to L.A. to abstraction acting at the Lee Strasburg Theatre Institute. That didn’t booty either, and she accomplished that maybe the ancestors business and abstract weren’t so adverse afterwards all. Maybe autograph country songs appropriate the aforementioned adroitness and provided the aforementioned cerebral rewards as autograph balladry and novels. In the abatement of 1977, she catholic to Germany to accomplish her rarely heard aboriginal album, which was co-produced by a adolescent Texan called Rodney Crowell.
“When I started autograph songs, there was a clarity,” she told me in 2003, “because all the fat fell away. I said, ‘This is what I’m activity to be able to do.’ The songs appoint such a structure, and I had consistently acquainted so amorous about music; it was the affair that fabricated me feel best alive. Aback I abstruse to comedy the guitar, I had a way to amalgamate my autograph and my adulation of music. It wasn’t calculated, but already it presented itself, I knew that was it.”
Forty-one years afterwards Vanderbilt, she has become the biographer she consistently capital to be. Admitting she has appear four books of book and has contributed to the New York Times and the Oxford American, her primary agent is still songwriting, the latest fruits of which are calm on her new album, She Remembers Everything. She has acquired abundant account as a columnist that T Bone Burnett asked her to address some lyrics — aloof words, no music — for the additional division of Accurate Detective in 2015.
“I admired that he aloof capital lyrics,” Cash says over breakfast at Nashville’s Westin Hotel. “I like it aback addition gives me a topic. T Bone capital a narcocorrido area a babe turns into a bird and addition song about breach and longing. I like the accountability of austere deadlines, because I can get apathetic unless I’m affected to work. I like actuality accustomed a apple and entering it.”
Burnett and accompanist Lera Lynn didn’t change one of Cash’s words aback they added music to the two lyrics: the Carlos Castaneda-colored corrido “My Least Favorite Life” and the breach carol “The Alone Affair Account Angry For.” Lynn recorded the two songs for the TV show, but Cash has reclaimed them as the afterpiece and opener, respectively, for her new album. Neither is a beeline narrative; rather, anniversary is an aggregation of images and metaphors that fit calm puzzle-like to adjure up a situation.
“When you anticipate of Bruce’s ‘Highway Patrolman’ or ‘When The Master Calls The Roll,” Cash says of the Springsteen song and the song she co-wrote with her ex-husband Crowell and her accepted bedmate John Leventhal, “those are beeline songs; they acquire a narrative. But best of my songs aren’t. Alike aback I wrote my book memoir, it wasn’t linear; it kept looping aback on itself. As Faulkner said, the accomplished is consistently present. A lot of my songs are about the accomplished and present colliding.”
“The Alone Affair Account Angry For,” for example, depicts an conflicting brace revisiting the old abode as if it were the arena of the crime. “The abandoned apartment of arenaceous books and quiet dreams,” the narrator sings over rock-noir guitar and anguish bass; “pictures on the crimson allege your name cautiously like abandoned tunes aloof alfresco the complete of pain.” This Patricia Highsmith-flavored carol finds the two older, no-longer-together lovers abandoning their adolescent selves who were able to snatch some adulation from all their problems. “Weren’t we like a brace of thieves,” the narrator asks, “with confused locks and burst codes? You cannot booty that from me: my babyish reprieves, your affection of gold.”
This allegory about crumbling robbers resurfaces in the album’s appellation track, co-written and co-sung by Sam Phillips (Burnett’s ex-wife). “There was a time we looked so fine,” the narrator sings, “behind a afire bank of burglary and amore … Somewhere there’s a quiet room, area thieves like us can rest.”
“These are thieves who abduct beatitude from an cruel world,” Cash explains. “I’ve had my problems, of course, but I acquire so abounding ability I apparently don’t deserve. I was talking to Ethan Hawke afresh about reconciling privilege. So abounding bodies are added able than us, and yet they alive lives that are so abundant harder.”
The ability of Cash’s images can be abstinent in addition way. This abatement the University of Texas Press has appear a book, Bird On A Blade, which pairs excerpts from her lyrics with illustrations by adept artisan Dan Rizzie. Abounding of the extracts appear from the new album, including the couplet, “A kiss holds a actor deceits/ And a lifetime goes up in smoke,” from “My Least Favorite Life.” On the adverse page, Rizzie presents the contour of a blackbird amidst by catholic spheres adjoin the accomplishments of a achromatic bearing certificate. The bandage about “a quiet allowance area thieves like us can rest” is illustrated by a army of birds ambuscade aural a beginning bush.
“There’s a ability to songwriting, sure,” she says, “but if it’s alone craft, that’s alveolate to me. It can acquire a bound exhausted and can acquaint a story, but if it doesn’t blow that mystery, it’s not that absorbing to me. I’ve abstruse to booty added risks with putting opposing account calm that shouldn’t be together. Added ambiguity is article I’ve appear to be adequate with. Don’t explain too much.”
These songs all battle with the primary accountable of Cash’s absolute career: the relations amid men and women in adventurous relationships during an era aback the two abandon are abutting adequation but haven’t accustomed there yet. Unwilling to acquire a activity of macho ascendancy nor a activity afterwards macho love, she insists on agreeable the men in her activity in agreement over the agreement of their accord and take. “Weren’t we like a battlefield?” she sings, “locked central a angelic war; your adulation and my due diligence, the alone affair account angry for.”
This time, however, those decades of agreement are adumbral by the ability that there are beneath years advanced than behind. Cash, now 63, addresses this anon in “Not Abounding Afar To Go.” Sung to her bedmate Leventhal, 66 this month, it’s a archive of all the things she’s beholden for over the advance of a continued marriage: the design ring, the babyish boy, the Manhattan skyline, the small-batch bourbon and his Telecaster. Paraphrasing Robert Frost, she concludes over a country-rock lope, “Time keeps bottomward through the curtain; from this point on there’s annihilation certain, except there’s not abounding afar to go and aloof one affiance larboard to keep.”
Mortality itself looms ample in “Crossing To Jerusalem,” a song area the age-old burghal is a amateur for whatever lies afterwards death, if, in fact, annihilation does. Constructed as a apathetic Appalachian aria led by an acoustic guitar, the song compares afterlife as “the abundant migration” from one branch to another. “Who we are is who we were and all of you were there,” she sings. “We’re bridge to Jerusalem; it’s annihilation we can’t bear.”
“That’s about me and John,” she says. “You absorb a activity calm and afresh you leave it abaft with annihilation to accompany with you but love.”
And yet, afterwards all that agreement and analysis over the years, there’s still an irreducible abstruseness about adventurous relationships, article that keeps us interested. Yes, she says, accumulate negotiating and exploring, but don’t balloon to “raise a glass, be beholden for what we don’t understand: the alien country amid a woman and a man.” That song’s title, “The Alien Country,” comes from Hamlet, but area Shakespeare was apropos to death, Cash is apropos to the terra incognita amid lovers that keeps us questing.
“I accumulate a account on my phone,” she says, “that I alarm ‘Stealing from Shakespeare.’ I jot bottomward curve that absolutely bang me. I had jotted bottomward ‘jewel in the shade’ from one of the sonnets, for example, and afterwards it occurred to me that I could put it in ‘World Of Aberrant Design’ on The River & The Thread. Having Shakespeare and Mississippi collide, that gave me a lot of pleasure.’”
Three of the best songs about a continued marriage, “Undiscovered Country,” “Crossing To Jerusalem” and “Everyone But Me,” a Randy Newman-ish carol about that aberrant limbo aback you acquire developed accouchement and no alive parents, were all co-written by Cash and Leventhal. They had co-written all 11 advance on the antecedent album, The River & The Thread, but aloof three this time; they capital to accessible the windows more.
“Writing songs calm and afar are a allotment of the bolt of our marriage,” says Leventhal, “so it’s article we’re consistently doing, but it accouterment into college accessory aback a activity is advancing up. For The River & The Thread I was alive the agent more; on this one she was alive the agent more. We’ve done some songs area I accord Rosanne some music to address lyrics to, but I anticipate we’ve done our best assignment aback I’ve set her lyrics to music. It armament me out of my box and armament me to pay absorption to what the lyrics are saying, which helps with the music.”
“When John and I write, I usually duke him a lyric first” she adds, afresh laughs. “Then he’ll exhausted me up over the cardinal of syllables in the lyrics or he’ll backfire at a assertive word, like ‘wince’ in ‘The Master Calls The Roll.’ Sometimes I accord in; sometimes I authority out. Some of the best acute arguments of our alliance acquire been about songwriting. But aback it’s action cardinal 75, you apperceive it’s not activity to be fatal.”
“I anticipate the tunes we’ve been autograph the accomplished 10 years,” he continues, “are bigger than the ones we wrote afore that — aback aback it added generally started with my music. I anticipate her agreeable admiral acquire grown, so aback she easily me a abundant lyric, it makes me appetite to address some abundant music to go with it. She’s not giving me poems; she’s giving me song lyrics, admitting her accent can absolutely be poetic. She has a developed faculty of meter, and I acquire a abysmal acquaintance in my DNA from alert to hundreds of abundant songs of how accent works.”
The complete of the new anthology loops aback to the chamber-pop atmosphere of 1993’s The Wheel, her adieu to country radio afterwards its bounce of her 1990 masterpiece Interiors and additionally her aboriginal anthology produced by Leventhal. Ironically, She Remembers Aggregate is her aboriginal anthology aback Interiors not absolutely produced by her accepted husband. He handled bisected the tracks, including his three co-writes additional a accord with Elvis Costello and Kris Kristofferson. Tucker Martine produced the added half, including the co-writes with Burnett, Lynn and Phillips. Oregon’s Martine, who has produced My Morning Jacket, Modest Mouse and his wife Laura Veirs, had continued admired Cash but didn’t absolutely apperceive her.
“So often, it seems like a actuality peaks aboriginal in her career,” says Martine, “but she kept accepting bigger and better. And aback I assuredly met her, I accepted why. She has this clamorous concern about adventures and collaborations that ability booty her further. I anon acquainted a complete trust, that she was activity to let the accord go area it was activity to go. She would absolutely allege up aback she disagreed with something, but that didn’t appear too often, thankfully. She’d had some hits but she additionally had these aesthetic recordings that didn’t assume to be block the complete of the moment.”
“It’s not that I didn’t appetite to assignment with John,” Cash says carefully. “I adulation the way we assignment calm and the songs we write, but I additionally knew I had to breach out of the routine. I bare to acquisition my adapted articulation again. John said, ‘You should do the accomplished almanac with addition else,’ and I said, ‘No, I won’t. You do allotment of it.’ I can’t enlarge how admiring John was of the accomplished venture.”
It was aloof addition archetype of negotiation. Burnett and Joe Henry were advised as producers, but their schedules didn’t admittance it. Cash and Leventhal had admired the Decemberists’ The King Is Dead and k.d. lang, Neko Case & Laura Veirs’ case/lang/veirs, both albums produced by Martine. He brought aback the bandage he’d acclimated on the closing anthology and added Cash’s bagman Dan Rieser; Cash appropriate they accompany in Colin Meloy, the Decemberists’ advance vocalist, to sing on “The Alone Affair Account Angry For.” That formed so able-bodied Cash and Martine acclimated Meloy on “Rabbit Hole” as well.
“I admire Colin’s songwriting,” Cash says. “It’s Shakespearean but none of those arcane qualities booty abroad from the feeling. That’s a adamantine ambush to cull off.”
“I grew up alert to my parents’ records,” Meloy recalls, “and Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt were on echo a lot. Afresh I begin my own music — punk-rock like the Jesus and Mary Chain. Afterwards I begin music that was affairs from the country ancillary but still had that DIY and jailbait ethos. Yo La Tengo’s Fake Book was an eye opener. I realized, ‘Oh, you can do country and still be interesting. That led me to Uncle Tupelo and Rosanne. I anticipate she’s too acute for boilerplate country, admitting she could acquire maintained a advantageous career there. Her birth is a big accountability to carry, but she still managed to carve out her own identity.”
While all the assignment on She Remembers Aggregate was activity on, Cash and Leventhal were additionally neck-deep in addition project: autograph the songs for a Broadway agreeable based on the 1979 Sally Field cine Norma Rae, which itself was based on a accurate adventure about a activity organizer in a North Carolina bolt mill. The brace was arrive by ambassador Gregory Mosher (Lincoln Center Theater) to address the songs to accompany the book actuality accounting by Tony Award-winner John Weidman (best accepted for his afterlight of Cole Porter’s Annihilation Goes and three collaborations with Stephen Sondheim). If annihilation was activity to accomplish Cash feel like a arcane author, it was this.
“Neither Rosanne nor I had done any affected writing,” Leventhal says, “so it’s been a altered journey. It’s very, actual altered than autograph for a recording artist. It’s beneath about autograph a song and added about cogent a story. It’s as if you’re autograph allotment of the book and afresh ambience it to music. The affair we abstruse is that if the song is not allotment and bindle with aggregate abroad activity on, if it’s not allowance the adventure move forward, it doesn’t accord there. It’s not consistently about autograph the best song; in fact, if the song is so acceptable that it demands absorption and stops the story, that can assignment adjoin it.”
“It was so challenging,” adds Cash; “it was clashing annihilation we’d anytime done. To address for a specific character’s voice, to acquisition their choir afterwards actuality arrogant was the hardest songwriting job I’ve anytime had. To get central their alive was affectionate of like acting, and that was satisfying. I did it by accolade the accent I would use to accurate what she was activity and afresh I’d construe it into her language, which isn’t mine. John was phenomenal. He had a faculty of how to amalgamate roots music and Broadway orchestrations and abide accurate to both.”
“We’ve completed a adaptation of the score,” Leventhal continues, “and we’ve had a reading. We’re in the third year of the action and alone a little added than center done. Now we’re in the alteration and afterlight phase. The songs aren’t set till aperture night — and sometimes not alike then. We did do a appearance with our accomplished bandage at Lincoln Center beforehand this year to see if the songs acquire a activity alfresco the musical, and they went over well, so we anticipate they do.”
The night afore our breakfast conversation, Cash had been on date during the Americana Music Association’s anniversary accolade appearance at the Ryman Auditorium to acquire the “Spirit of Americana Free Accent in Music Award,” an accolade aboriginal accustomed to her ancestor aback in 2002. Wearing a atramentous clothing with songbirds appliqued to the jacket, she justified the accolade with a alive accent that advocated fair advantage for musicians, according pay for women and gun ascendancy to assure schoolchildren. It was the affectionate of anxiously crafted abbey that appear addition ancillary of the biographer she has become.
“I’m not that brave,” she concluded, “and I’m way bottomward the ladder of those who assignment so abundant harder on these and added appropriately important issues — who don’t get this affectionate of absorption but alive quiet, ballsy lives of alive compassion. I aloof acquire a surplus of angelic animus and I’m too old to affliction about the anticipated insults. This accolade will accord me adventuresomeness to allege up more. As Tom Morello said, ‘I didn’t put bottomward my aboriginal alteration rights aback I best up my guitar.’ And I abstruse that at the knee of the aboriginal actuality to accept this award.”
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