Many of you know that we at Alabama Chanin hold a strong admiration for lyricist, musician, vocal Twitter user, and writer (among other things) Rosanne Cash. I was a fan and supporter many years before we actually met and became friends. The more that I get to know this incredible woman, the more I respect her talent and her humanity. She has said that she wears Alabama Chanin pieces on stage for nearly every performance, an honor that we do not take lightly. Rosanne has become one of our favorite clients, a dear friend, and a near-constant source of inspiration.
Many of you may know of Rosanne Cash because of her renowned family lineage. She is the firstborn daughter of revered American icon Johnny Cash. As a songwriter and performer, she is doing honest work, from her own perspective. For over 30 years, she has written and released 15 albums and four books, charted 21 Top 40 singles, including 11 Number Ones and received 13 Grammy nominations and one Grammy win. Her 2010 album, The List, was named Album of the Year by the Americana Music Awards and her upcoming album, The River and the Thread, is already garnering critical praise.
Her book, Composed: A Memoir, not only tells the story of her upbringing and explores her relationships with her parents and her famous stepmother; it is also the story of a woman in the process of discovering who she is and who she wants to be. Last year, I first read Composed on a trip to Berlin and found myself sitting in an airport terminal, openly weeping; the language is so beautiful and her story is engaging and unfailingly honest.
It is undeniable that Johnny Cash was and remains a cultural icon and his work still resonates. As a young woman, Rosanne admits that it was difficult to negotiate her own way in the shadow of her father and her stepmother, June Carter Cash – herself a member of a revered musical line, The Carter Family. Rosanne is so clearly filled with love and respect for her family’s musical legacy but, as a young woman, struggled to find her own voice while respecting those roots. She writes, “I had so much fear of exploiting my father, and not doing things on my own, but it was more than that. He cast an obviously large shadow, and it was hard for me to find my own place outside of it, or to be comfortable when the shadow was the first thing people noticed about my life or my work.”
She saw, from an early age, how draining her father and stepmother’s lives often were. The constant travel, exhaustion, giving of yourself to others, media presence, and loss of privacy – these were trade-offs that she knew of first hand. But, the desire to create and to share her light with others was eventually enough. Her father’s public struggles with drug abuse, the public dissolution of her nuclear family, and the public loss of her parents and her stepmother have all led to moments of hesitation, resistance, and eventual growth. Rosanne gave herself over to her need to create, accepted the challenges that might lie ahead, and I am thankful for it.
As she told Melissa Block on NPR’s “All Things Considered”, “That is something – if I could teach my children one thing, it would be… that whatever they’re going through now, whatever difficult thing, that hopelessness isn’t necessary because later on, you may have the tools, the wisdom, the experience to understand why you’re going through it now, and what it means. And if you have to compartmentalize it, then do so because you’ll figure it out later.”
Rosanne writes in detail in Composed about other personal hardships: a miscarriage, the devastating and lingering loss of her voice, and her long and difficult recovery from brain surgery. But, the telling of each story led to healing moments. “I didn’t know how I felt about certain things until I wrote about them,” she said. “I didn’t understand the full meaning of certain things until I wrote about them.”
Reading Composed, it was immediately clear that Rosanne is more than a master lyricist; she is a writer, full stop. She is sometimes guarded when publicly discussing her personal life, her family lineage, and her personal losses. But, as she writes, “out of various forms of personal catastrophe comes art, if you’re lucky. And I have been lucky. I have also been driven by a deep love and obsession with language, poetry, and melody.”
“We all need art and music like we need blood and oxygen,” she writes. “The more exploitative, numbing, and assaulting pop culture becomes, the more we need the truth of a beautifully phrased song, dredged from a real person’s depth of experience, delivered in an honest voice; the more we need the simplicity of paint on canvas, or the arc of a lonely body in the air, or the photographer’s unflinching eye. Art, in the larger sense, is the lifeline to which I cling in a confusing, unfair, sometimes dehumanizing world.” To this I can only respond: Amen.
Rosanne’s words are wonderful reflections of what she is like as a human being. She is honest and forthright, absent of melodrama, constructively critical, refreshingly opinionated, and can speak beautifully and lovingly without relying on sappy sentiment. Plus, her honest expressions of middle age and motherhood resonate particularly well for me, personally.
Bonus: Rosanne writes beautifully of her childhood, her adult life, and her new album, The River and the Thread, in the most recent Oxford American: Southern Music Issue. Read her story, “The Long Way Home”, here. More on The River and the Thread coming soon.
Photo of Rosanne (wearing Alabama Chanin) courtesy of Clay Patrick McBride.