Rosanne Cash and the Many Meanings of Love

Rosanne Cash, the daughter of Johnny Cash, is not a country and western singer in the tradition of her famous father. She's American music's theoretical physicist of love.

From Smithsonian Magazine:

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.

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.

Or til September, her metaphor for death. There is something both enigmatic and transcendent in the verse she wrote for her father in that duet that demonstrates a master of the fusion of music and emotion:

I plan to crawl outside these walls, close my eyes and see
and fall into the heart and arms of those who wait for me
I cannot move a mountain now, I can no longer run
I cannot be who I was then, in a way, I never was

The café she chose for lunch, in the West Village, is the very epicenter of New York’s literary haute Bohemia. It’s set among rows of elegantly genteel brownstones whose original gaslight lampposts still flicker at night. The realm of Edith Wharton, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Mary McCarthy, Djuna Barnes. Which is appropriate since Rosanne is not just a songwriter but an accomplished writer of prose, author of a much praised short story collection and a memoir, Composed, a beautifully restrained, gracefully written document.

I wanted to talk to her about songwriting. In her memoir, she mentioned a songwriting mentor named John Stewart. “He wrote this song I recorded, ‘Runaway Train,’” she tells me now. “I didn’t know him when I got the song. We liked it, but there was no bridge. So we asked him if he would write the bridge. He was well known as a songwriter, he had written ‘Daydream Believer’”—everybody’s guilty pleasure Monkees song—“and he wrote ‘Gold,’ that duet with Stevie Nicks. And he was known as a deep songwriter. So asking him to add a bridge seemed a bit forward. But he did. So then it became a big hit and I still hadn’t met him and he came to Nashville and…”

I interrupt her to ask her more about that bridge. The song is racing along at a runaway train pace in the first two verses, as the lovers express alarm at how out-of-control their feelings are becoming.

Things are accelerating with exhilarating momentum and then the bridge jams the brakes on, melodically and emotionally.

“That bridge,” I ask Cash, “it goes, ‘I’ve been here before, and now it’s with you’?”

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