Interview with Rosanne Cash on Coping, Writing and Savoring the Pleasures of Home

05.02.14
Rosanne Cash
Origin Magazine

By Kristi York Wooten

Rosanne Cash is an author, essayist and Grammy-winning singer-songwriter. She is the daughter of Johnny Cash, but has carved her own musical niche out of an inimitable blend of folk, pop and country across a dozen albums. She is also a mother to five children. Her latest release, The River and the Thread, was written with her husband John Leventhal and explores her family’s roots in the Deep South.

Kristi York Wooten: The success of The River and the Thread seems like everything is coming full circle for you. How does this album reflect where you are in your life at the moment?

Rosanne Cash: It’s a more complete picture of my worldview. Isn’t that the goal, as you grow older? That you start reclaiming those parts of yourself you didn’t recognize or didn’t think were there all along? That’s what happened when I made this record. While visiting places in the South with my heart really open, I realized how important people in certain geographical spots were to me, what they symbolize, how I’m still connected to them and how much they are a part of my ancestry, both musical and real.

KYW: Would you have the same career if your dad hadn’t been Johnny Cash?

RC: That’s a difficult question. Think about all of the families where the father is a doctor and the son is a doctor or generations of coal miners. Why did they go into that line of work? Because that’s what they were taught. Or was it in their genes? It’s not an either/or question. It’s both. I was inclined in that way. I was sensitive to music and poetry, and it was around me growing up.

KYW: You wrote an essay in the New York Times recently about your song, “When the Master Calls the Roll,” and you compared songwriting to time travel. Tell me how songs are time capsules.

RC: Like Thornton Wilder said, time is not a river, but rather a landscape that you step in and out of. I’ve always found that true of creative work, and I’ve heard so many songwriters and writers in general say the same thing. Linear time disappears in this kind of work. When you’re going into the realms of your self and trying to tap into the mystery of this creative source, linear time kind of falls away.

KYW: You’re such a wordsmith. Does writing a book or an essay flow as easily for you as songwriting does?

RC: Half inspiration, half perspiration. I have the idea of what to write about, but then there’s the work of writing it and editing it. There’s always that moment when you realize what it’s going to be. You might have an overarching theme and you need to fill in the blanks – and then there’s this “Aha” moment when you see where it’s going. That’s the most satisfying part of writing.

KYW: In Composed, you wrote about your 2007 brain surgery to alleviate symptoms from a Chiari Malformation. It took you a few years to recover. What were some of the personal coping mechanisms you used to get through that time period?

RC: I had to regroup. I thought I’d be better in three months. I thought, “I’m a resilient person, and I’m really strong, and I’ll just bounce right back.”

How long it actually took me to recover was really depressing. I wish someone would’ve told me that it would take two years just to get back on my feet. I’m still in physical therapy, which I love. I did learn how to not push myself so hard. That was a revelation – how to be nicer to myself. I couldn’t listen to music with lyrics for the first few months after the surgery, because they were too complex and disturbing. So I listened to a lot of classical music. I didn’t really want to read, either, so I listened to books on tape or watched movies. I also re-taught myself all of my childhood piano pieces. It helped me repair my brain.

KYW: On your Twitter profile, you refer to yourself as a “NeoFolkBuddhiscopalian-paganPostFeministProgressive.” I wanted to get your take on this quote from Robert Wright, the first African-American Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, who is a lover of music and words like you are. He says, “Song is closer to the soul than intellectual assent to the idea of God.” Is that true?

RC: He’s my man! I’ve always said that art is a more trustworthy expression of God than religion. It’s a natural human impulse to create. You stand in front of a great painting and your heart just opens and your mind expands about what’s possible. That, to me, is a connection to what God is.