Rosanne Cash on Creative Heritage, the Bravery of Befriending Our Roots, and What Her Father, Johnny Cash, Taught Her About Artistic Integrity
By Maria Popova
“When you come right down to it, how much of that was free will?” young Sylvia Plath pondered in her diary as she looked back on the turning points that had taken her to where she was in life and considered what makes us who we are. This puzzlement is far from uncommon — who hasn’t wondered on a sleepless night or mid-stride on a busy city sidewalk how much of our lives are self-chosen and how much determined by our culture, our circumstances, our conditioning, and even our biology?
This question, which most mercilessly bedevils those who walk the nonlinear path of the creative life, is what Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash tussles with throughout Composed: A Memoir (public library) — a beautiful chronicle of her life in music and her relationship with her legendary father, Johnny Cash, ripe with insight into the artistic process and the psychological thrills, terrors, and tumults of the creative life.
My life has been circumscribed by music. I have learned more from songs than I ever did from any teacher in school. They are interwoven and have flowed through the most important relationships in my life — with my parents, my husband, and my children… Many of my own songs have taken the long way around, as I circled the edges of an experience … constantly roaming and constantly curious.
I dream of songs. I dream they fall down through the centuries, from my distant ancestors, and come to me.
Pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead drew a distinction between our biological ancestors and our “spiritual and mental ancestors” — the cultural, creative, and intellectual lineage from which we spring beyond our immediate genetic kin, those who seed our inspirations and beliefs and frames of reference. But for Cash, these two types of ancestry have always been deeply entwined. She reflects:
I belong to an extended family of musicians whose members sprawl across generations. Some occupy positions of great acclaim (my father and my stepmother’s family, the Carters), some have modest but respectable careers marked by persistence and hard work (my uncle Tommy Cash), while others never made it much further than anecdotal obscurity (my maternal uncle “Wildman” Ray Liberto, a onetime raucous honky-tonk piano player with a handlebar mustache), and some are just embarking (my daughter Chelsea). At sixteen I did not intend to take my place among them. Tradition was anathema to me; I understood that any real rebellion in which I could engage would involve taking a nondomestic, or artistic but nonmusical, path.
And yet she concedes:
Traditions can take root out of the dormant impulses of one’s own soul, if they are powerful enough, whether we acknowledge them or not.
This, indeed, was her own experience — something significant shifted for Cash in her late teens and soon the awareness of this dual heritage awakened in her the longing for a life of and in music. In the summer of 1973, just after she graduated from high school, her father handed her a list in the back of his tour bus. It contained one hundred songs he considered essential to the corpus of country music — knowledge he thought necessary for his daughter to have if she was serious about becoming a roots musician.
Many years later, when a brain surgery and the trauma of her parents’ deaths left Cash bereft of a solid center, she set out to reconnect with her roots by recording her own interpretations of twelve of the songs on her father’s list in what became her magnificent covers album, The List.
With an eye to the burdens and blessings of her father’s inescapable presence, Cash reflects on what it was like to spend her life locked in “an exhausting dance with his legacy” while trying to be, and very much succeeding in being, her own person and a thoroughly original musician. (In October of 2015, she was inducted into the iconic Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame — an honor equivalent to the Nobel of songwriting.) She writes:
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.
In the fullness of that legacy, I am still first and foremost a songwriter. The curatorial work and the deliberate attention on my voice rather than my words, which happened with The List, has only added to my sense of honor as a songwriter and respect for the art and discipline.
Indeed, the idea of singing someone else’s songs might have been odd for Cash, who identifies first and foremost as a songwriter, had she not learned long ago from her father that there is always a deeper dialogue taking place within the music, beyond the singing itself. In a reflection with parallel resonance to almost every kind of creative work, she writes:
It’s not just the singing you bring home with you. It’s the constant measuring of ideas and words if you are 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 reveling in the melodies if you are a singer. More than that, it is the effort to straddle two worlds, and the struggle to make the transition from the creative realms to those of daily life and back with grace. My father did all of those, as a habit of being. He provided a template for me, of how to live with integrity as an artist day to day.
This devotion to artistic integrity stayed with Cash as her career took off and she felt herself pushed one way by the Rube Goldberg machine of achievement, pulled another by her creative integrity. She resisted the conformity steamroll of success and chose the internal and eternal rewards of the creative process instead — a commitment that coalesced into conscious awareness after one particularly prophetic anxiety dream Cash had just as she was setting out to record her sixth album, King’s Record Shop. She recounts the values to which the dream awakened her:
I resisted the push to conform, to buy into a certain narrow aesthetic, and to become part of the established hierarchy. I didn’t want a lofty perch; I wanted to be in the trenches, where the inspiration was.
I started paying attention to everything, both in the studio and out. If I found myself drifting off into daydreams — an old, entrenched habit — I pulled myself awake and back into the present moment. I opened my eyes and focused. Instead of toying with ideas, I examined them, and I tested the authenticity of my instincts musically. I stretched my attention span consciously. I … went deeper into every process involved with writing and musicianship. I realized I had earlier been working only within my known range — never pushing far outside the comfort zone to take any real risks. I had written songs almost exclusively about romance and all the attending little dramas of loss and lust. It was legitimate, certainly, but only one small mode of transportation over a vast landscape of experience that might be fodder for whole new categories of songs. I started painting, so I could learn about the absence of words and sound, and why I needed them, and what I actually wanted to say with them.
Everything seemed new, frightening, and tremendously exciting. I had awakened from the morphine sleep of success into the life of an artist.
Four of the songs on King’s Record Shop became number-one singles. No woman in the industry had ever achieved this before, but the record’s ultimate reward for her was something far more significant. She recounts:
Although it was my sixth album, I felt like a beginner, and I was relieved and grateful for the chance to start over, to go deeper into sound and texture, language and poetry, and the direction of my own instincts.
But as rooted as she may remain in the past — in her personal and cultural heritage — Cash conceives of the creative process as largely a matter of writing oneself “postcards from the future.” She reflects on the nature of creative work and how her own orientation toward it changed as she grew older:
Creative work sometimes fosters a prescience — not a psychic premonition, but rather a release from linear time, a fluidity of movement on the continuum.
Sometimes songs are indeed postcards from the future, and are not written out of prescience as much as time travel. Thornton Wilder said, “It is only in appearance that time is a river. It is rather a vast landscape and it is the eye of the beholder that moves.” In songwriting, I have found my attention to wander both forward and backward on that continuum. But with or without prescience, considering only the hard-earned craftsmanship of songwriting, as I get older I have found the quality of my attention to be more important, and more rewarding, than the initial inspiration. This maturation in songwriting has proven surprisingly satisfying. Thirty years ago I would have said that the bursts of inspiration, and the ecstatic flood of feeling that came with them, were an emotionally superior experience, preferable to the watchmaker’s concentration required for the detail work of refining, editing, and polishing. But the reverse is proving to be true. Like everything else, given enough time and the long perspective, the opposite of those things that we think define us slowly becomes equally valid and sometimes more potent.
Complement Composed with Joni Mitchell on creativity and the dark side of success, Amanda Palmer on art and our lifelong quest to feel real, Bob Dylan on sacrifice and the unconscious mind, and beloved writers on the singular power of music, then treat yourself to Cash’s elevating On Being conversation with Krista Tippett:
Creativity and spirituality [are] the same thing to me.
Published August 8, 2016