by Rosanne Cash
Rosanne Cash, firstborn child of country music icon Johnny Cash and his first wife Vivian, was a writer long before she became a musician, singer and songwriter. A light went on with the assignment of a seventh-grade English project for which she created an original metaphor. When revisiting that moment in time Cash writes, “I could feel the thrill of my twelve-year-old self coming off the page, a nascent writer in love with language as if language were a potential lover. I came to a single page that said, in big letters, ‘A lonely road is a bodyguard.’ ”
This metaphor eventually made it into the song “Sleeping in Paris” from her 1993 album The Wheel. ”I’ll send the angels to watch over you tonight/And you send them right back to me./A lonely road is a bodyguard/If you really want it to be.“ It also appears throughout the book, mostly implied, and then in the final sentence.
Six years after her birth in Memphis in 1955, the family moved to Casitas Springs, California, about 70 miles north of Los Angeles. It was during these times her father’s career really took off and he was rarely home. Cash writes of the rattlesnakes crisscrossing through the yard of their hillside home, Vivian outside decapitating them with a garden hoe and tossing the bodies onto a fence. These early scenes of rattlesnakes, spiders, scorpions, a shoebox full of dead Chihuahua puppies that her father perched onto the roof of the house in a mock Choctaw burial ritual, and the steady stream of drunken folk singers ringing the doorbell at all hours searching for salvation from her larger-than-life father, Cash handles with equal measures of grace, beauty, and humor.
A decade in the making, Composed is filled with these sublime moments of simple beauty and brutal reality. Cash is indeed an engaging writer.
Throughout the book, her father is a large presence, a benign figure whose essence is of “two compelling but separate Beings: Johnny Cash and Daddy.” She goes through the inevitable teenage rebellion phase, distancing herself from her family and searching for her own voice. It was the day after high school graduation, however, that she went on the road with her father. “It was something of a graduation gift, and a chance to catch up on some of the time we had lost. Traveling the world, watching him perform, and singing on the bus were also the basis for a serious education.” It was during this time that he made the infamous list of a hundred essential country songs that he instructed her to learn.
At twenty, eight years after Vivian and her father had divorced and June Carter entered the picture, Rosanne remembers standing on the beach at Johnny and June’s estate on Montego Bay in Jamaica. “I cannot remember the specifics of any epiphanies, only that I was overcome with a vague but immense sense of limitless possibility for my life, and an almost painful feeling of excitement and happiness.” Shortly thereafter she left for a job in London working in “artist relations” at CBS Records. It was during this six months that, on an early-morning walk home from a party (the lonely road metaphor again) she devised a blueprint for her life that would transform her “unformed, raw, swollen personality” into a more “emotionally sinuous, urbane girl.”
She covers her time in Germany recording her self-titled first album, and her close working relationship with Rodney Crowell, who would become her first husband. The background and inside stories behind the recording of her albums are interesting enough, but it is Cash’s intelligent, mature, thoughtful, and at times gorgeous writing that ties the narration together so well.
There are heartbreaking moments, especially when she and her father (near the end of his life) are shopping at a hardware store when, for some reason, she begins to break down. “I felt the tears welling. I don’t remember what had happened, what had come up in conversation, but I stood in the aisle looking at my dad, Whatever he said in that moment, it was good, it helped. He reassured me.”
Cash writes with subdued beauty of her breakup with Crowell and eventual marriage to musician John Leventhal (to whom the book is dedicated). It’s not all heartbreak and behind-the-scenes musical shop talk, however, as some of the self-deprecating moments of motherhood and middle-aged angst are hilarious and touchingly wise.
There are, of course, the classic insider moments with the likes of George Jones and Tammy Wynette (“perched on the plush blue sofa…looking like a lotus blossom sitting next to George, a perfect foil, but completely herself”) an amusing argument with Robert Plant about changing the lyrics of John Lennon’s “Imagine” before a performance, and noticing George Harrison’s nervousness backstage before a Carl Perkins television show performance.
The toughest moments to endure are her recollections of her brain surgery, September 11th (she heard the first plane fly overhead while she attended a meeting at her child’s daycare mere blocks from the twin towers) and the eulogies she gave to her mother Vivian, then June, and finally her father, all of which Cash reprints in full. They are heartwrenching and beautifully written, free of sentimentality yet full of honesty and pure love.
Although the book jumps around in time almost as much as The Sound and the Fury, some of the brightest and most artistically wrought moments come as summaries at the end of each section. “We all need art and music like we need blood and oxygen. The more exploitative, numbing, and assaulting popular culture becomes, the more we need the truth of a beautifully phrased song, dredged from a real person’s depth of experience, delivered in an honest voice.”
Above all, this is a highly engaging book full of hope and extraordinary honesty. Fittingly, she ends the Acknowledgments page with the words, “More to come.”