Rosanne Cash Lists Influences, Including Famous Father’s, in New Memoir

August 17, 2010 at 2:08 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Last year, Rosanne Cash released an album titled “The List,” songs from a list of essential country music given her when she was a teenager by her famous father.”The List” is a celebration and continuation of a family legacy — and what a legacy.Rosanne was the oldest child of Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian, and the stepdaughter of June Carter, a member of the legendary Carter family.

She learned from them all, and, beginning in the 1970s, carved out her own career as a songwriter and performer, with chart-topping success. Now 55, Rosanne Cash tells her story in a new memoir titled “Composed.”

When we talked recently, I asked her about one major theme of the book: being part of a larger family and musical drama.

ROSANNE CASH, author, “Composed:” Maybe a bit too much drama.


ROSANNE CASH: Yes, but, more than drama, part of this legacy, again, and this — you know, my father cast an enormous shadow musically.And he was — he was one of the five greatest artists of the 20th century, in my humble opinion.


ROSANNE CASH: And that is a huge — you know, that’s a huge — not — I don’t want to say burden, but it’s significant.And I think any young person who is going into the same field as their parent whose parent has been very successful, it’s complicated.And it was complicated for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you write — one of the sections that’s most moving here is, right out of high school, right, you go on the road with him.


JEFFREY BROWN: He learn about the life of a musician.What did you learn?

ROSANNE CASH: Yes.I really saw how bone-crushing the exhaustion could be.It was really a look deeply behind the veil.People think it’s very glamorous.It’s not at all glamorous.It’s exhausting.I mean, there is that — the two hours on stage, you know, when he was his best self, which was beautiful.It was kind of miraculous.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the rest of the time?

ROSANNE CASH: Yes, it’s tough.It was a tough life.And I learned — I learned a lot watching him about a connection with an audience.I learned how problems can dissolve in the spotlight, oddly, how you can work out your relationships in the spotlight.My dad was very good at all of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, then — then the other main theme, then, is how you work hard and — and find a way to establish your own presence, your own voice.

ROSANNE CASH: Yes.I wanted to very much.I wanted to be a songwriter.I didn’t so much want to be a performer.I more grew into that just from being a songwriter.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, but you make that real clear, right…


JEFFREY BROWN: … that you really did — that you really did not want to go out there and sing in front of people.


JEFFREY BROWN: Perhaps because of that life you were describing?

ROSANNE CASH: Well, partly because of the life.And, also, my mother had a lot of anxiety about a musician’s life and that, you know, you got addicted to drugs, and your marriage broke up, and you were away from home all the time.Who would want that, right?


ROSANNE CASH: So, I had a little bit of that imprint in me.You know, it was a little bit scary.But, also, I was very naturally reticent.I wanted to be the writer in the room setting depth charges of feeling out the world with my language.You know, I had a very romantic idea about that.But I grew into being a performer.

JEFFREY BROWN: It clearly was a continuing process.


JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a place where you write — and this comes after you have achieved great success, which is why it interested me so much — you said: “I changed the way I approached songwriting. I changed how I sang. I changed my work ethic.”


JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what happened?I mean, why did you want to — you had already achieved a great deal.

ROSANNE CASH: Not to be too mystical about it, but I had a dream that kind of showed me that I had been somewhat of a dilettante, just riding on this little wave of success, and not really going into the trenches of myself and doing the work.

And it scared me.And I wanted it.I wanted that kind of depth as an artist.And I changed everything from that day.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that meant writing in a different way, writing about different things?

ROSANNE CASH: It meant exploring it from all angles.I gave up language for a while, and I started painting.And then I only listened to Miles Davis and other instrumental music to see how it felt to be without words.

And then I put them back in.I just went deeper into a process of working with language.

JEFFREY BROWN: When one is living so much in public and, as your father did, with the fame and the songs, and…


JEFFREY BROWN: But then there’s also the downside, the darker side….


JEFFREY BROWN: … the addiction that — that people were aware of and followed. And then there was the movie that came out more recently…


JEFFREY BROWN: … which you — you — I gather you didn’t like very much.


ROSANNE CASH: Well, would you like a movie about your childhood?


ROSANNE CASH: Not many people would.


JEFFREY BROWN: What did we not know of him?What — who — who was the Johnny Cash or the family that you grew up in that we didn’t know?

ROSANNE CASH: Well, that’s who I wrote about in my book, this beautiful soul who was propelled by rhythm and language, who had deep love — a deep love for rhythm and language, and who loved children and respected children as much as he did any adult, and teenagers, too.He told me once that he could learn more from a 19-year-old than he could from anyone his age.And he wouldn’t give advice unless you asked for it, but he was the most, most loving parent.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, one — one — one last thing, I mean, that it’s very noticeable here.There’s a lot of pain and the kind of messy stuff of life, some of which we talked about.But there — but one thing you didn’t do here is give a lot of gossip or dirt or bitterness.

ROSANNE CASH: No.No.I’m not bitter.And, you know, at some point in my life, I saw that was a choice, that I could become bitter if I wanted to, or I could not.And I started looking to the future.You know, how am I going to look?I actually thought, how will I look if I become bitter?I don’t like it.I’m not going to do it.

And that’s — it’s work.But I made a conscious decision not to dish, not to gossip about people, not to point fingers, not to blame, and not to be bitter.


ROSANNE CASH: Because it just was I wanted to have more grace than that, more integrity.I wanted to be able to look myself in the mirror and say, I wrote something poetic that didn’t hurt anyone.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.The book is “Composed.” Rosanne Cash, thanks for talking to us.

You brought your guitar.You’re going to play something for us from “The List.”

ROSANNE CASH: This is “Girl From the North Country.”