Rosanne Cash

on Jul 16 in Music, Reviews by

Twice in the early 90s, I went to the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY for a songwriting workshop with Rosanne Cash. It was a non-juried event, meaning the first dozen people to call in their credit cards got to spend five days sitting in a circle, trying our stuff out and listening to Rosanne say what she thought was important about craft.

No matter what we sang and played, Rosanne found something about each of our tunes that was good. “Do we love that?” she would effuse about a particular line or chord change and we’d look around at each other and nod our heads. She was impossible to resist.

Rosanne had just released Interiors, which failed commercially and was still several years away from being an example of how a writer can and should take a big chance once in a while by doing something authentic even if it seems likely it will alienate fans of their old work. She had also recently gotten divorced, moved to NYC and was writing some new songs.

On the last morning, she came in with her cup of tea, took her guitar out of the case and asked if we’d mind if she played us a tune that was giving her a hard time. It was “The Wheel.” She had already won our hearts by believing against overwhelming evidence that we were decent songwriters and we were amazed someone could be so talented and so fragile at the same time.

Nowadays, you can get to know Rosanne by reading her Twitter feed. She’ll tell you where she’s playing, when and what she’s recording, about a flight that’s late, the books she’s reading, what pisses her off (bad grammar, staunch conservatism, and the noisy construction project on her street), as well as what her husband, producer and musical partner, John Leventhal thinks about a whole range of things including her tweets.

What you won’t get in concert or on Twitter is in her book, Composed.

As memoir goes, it is deep and wide. Her life, as the late poet Liam Rector said, has had an abundance of plot – narrative arc, dramatic tension, release and numinous purpose. Even setting aside her lineage, which for a while, she assiduously tried to do, Rosanne was a tail-end baby boomer with looks, talent and toughness at a time when the music business was still open and innocent enough that a person could, without too much kissing ass, cobble together a career.

There are some deeply satisfying details about her dad quietly and lovingly guiding his daughter as it became clear Rosanne was called to be an artist; tasty tidbits about analog recording — air and tape hiss, razor cut editing and “live” mixing. Her account of co-writing and performing September When it Comes with her father not long before he passed, which sent me back to the recording, is a fine example of the power of a beautiful ballad, an acoustic guitar and some really well chosen, heartfelt words.

Somewhere near the middle, she described her marriage to Rodney Crowell and then her children one by one, and the details blurred and I became very aware that Rosanne intended to keep these parts of her life private. Even so, I could tell she knew that I knew and I could hardly fault her for erring on the side of grace and kindness.

There are numerous examples of what psychiatrists call coherence, where Rosanne lists destructive events– fire, theft, brain surgery, the loss of toes, divorce, death–and pairs them with miracles that came in their wake.

About coming to terms with one’s parents’ limitations, she wrote, “In (their) untruth, there (were)… so many acts of service, so much real impulse for goodness…I see them clearly now, flawed as they are, self-centered and driven, with incomprehensible missions and agendas, diving headlong into parenthood when they were barely out of adolescence, unsuited to the task but devoted and hopeful…”

And toward the end: “You begin to realize that everyone has a tragedy and if he doesn’t, he will. You recognize how much is hidden behind the small courtesies and civilities of everyday existence. Deep sorrow and traces of great loss run through everyone’s lives, and yet (people) let others step into the elevator first, wave them ahead in a line of traffic, smile and greet their children and inquire about their lives, and never let on for a second that they, too, have lain awake at night in longing and regret, that they, too, have cried until it seemed impossible that one person could hold so many tears, that they, too, keep a picture of someone locked in their heart and bring it out in quiet, solitary moments to caress and remember.”

If Composed was a song, the killer line I will always remember would be “loss is the great unifier, the terrible club to which we all eventually belong.”

And then she nails the dismount, finishing with what could be considered her artist’s statement.

“Out of the 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. I first wanted to be a writer, in a quiet room, setting depth charges of emotion in the outside world, where my readers would know me only by my language. Then I decided I wanted to be a songwriter, writing not for myself but for other voices who would be the vehicles for the songs I created. Then, despite myself, I began performing my own songs, which rattled me to the core. It took me a long time to grow into an ambition for what I had already committed myself to doing, but I knew I could be good at it if I put my mind to it. So I put my mind to it.”

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