If you know Rosanne Cash only as Johnny Cash’s daughter, then you haven’t had your heart shattered, your life changed, your spirits lifted—then dashed into the dust—by one of her dangerously beautiful songs. You haven’t sighed tragically over her doomy, painfully romantic “Sleeping in Paris” or had your emotional life caught up on “The Wheel” or found yourself alone in a darkened room with an attractive stranger listening to her breathtaking, heart-racing “Runaway Train.” You have missed one of the most gifted singer-songwriters of our time.
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Her songs are intense; they stay with you like a lifelong fever. They create worlds lit by what Cash described to me as “the ebullience that comes from darkness.” She’s not a country and western singer in the tradition of her famous father. She’s American music’s theoretical physicist of love.
I’ll get to the connection between love and theoretical physics (seriously) a little later, when I come to our conversation about multiverse theory. But first, let’s get this identity thing straightened out. Cash is not a country gal, never was. She only lived in Nashville for nine years, she pointed out when we met for lunch near her apartment in the heart of New York City’s Greenwich Village. She grew up in Southern California, was a Beatlemaniac rock ’n’ roll chick in her youth, lived in Europe and has been a New Yorker for 20 years.
Her memoir tells of her struggle to escape from her father’s shadow, cutting her first album in Munich, reluctantly accepting his help when she returned to Nashville, where she married a brilliant singer-songwriter (Rodney Crowell, author of what I think is one of the greatest country songs ever, “Til I Gain Control Again”).
By the time they divorced, in 1992, she had moved to New York with her daughters and it was there she found herself personally and musically—self-discovery perhaps best expressed in her dreamy song “Seventh Avenue.”
The more she came into her own, the more comfortable she seemed living with her father’s legacy. Back when Rosanne was a SoCal Beatles and Byrds teenybopper, and a little embarrassed by country music’s retro image, her father painstakingly wrote out in pencil a list of 100 great country songs she ought to know. She put it away somewhere, but didn’t forget it.
The album she made in 2009 called The List contains 12 of the songs. There have been reports the list itself was thought to be long lost.
“I have it!” she told me.
“It’s now in a file cabinet on my third floor.” She says she plans to make another album from it sometime soon.
The culmination of her reconciliation with her father’s shadow, the most beautiful expression of their enduring love, is the haunting and unbearably sad duet she recorded with him shortly before his death, a song she wrote called “September When It Comes” (on her Rules of Travel album). Warning: See a cardiologist before you listen. Once you hear it, you will never recover as long as you live.