Cash on the Line

Being the child of a celebrity means running into some part of your personal life every time you turn the corner. Being the child of a dead celebrity, as Rosanne Cash has discovered since her father's death in 2003, can drive the surreal meter right into the red: "I walked into a store the other day, and I heard my father's voice say, 'I'm not afraid to die.' You know that song 'Personal Jesus'? There it was on the sound system. I just went, whoa, glad to hear it."

Being a singer and songwriter in her own right, Cash, 50, dealt with the deaths--in fairly quick succession--of her stepmother (June Carter Cash), her father (Johnny Cash) and her mother (Vivian Cash Distin) the best way she knew how: by making art out of the experience. The stunning result, "Black Cadillac," is an album-length song cycle that maps the territory she traveled after those deaths. Wonderfully crafted, deeply felt, Cash's songs are never maudlin or sentimental. Instead, they walk right up to the trickiest parts of grief--the anger, confusion and downright mystery--and convert those feelings into songs that manage to be both harrowing and comforting. This is not just the best album she's made in a long time. This is the best album she's ever made.

"Black Cadillac" arrives smack in the middle of a Cash family moment. "Walk the Line," the biopic about Johnny and June, will almost certainly bring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon Oscar nominations next week. In March, "Ring of Fire," a musical built around Johnny Cash's music, opens on Broadway, and there's talk of bringing another musical about the Carter family, June's kin, to New York in the near future. Arriving in the midst of all these Cash and Carter celebrations, "Black Cadillac" might seem like merely one more tribute to a famous father and stepmother. And that is exactly what Rosanne Cash does not want to happen.

"I sense that people are thinking this record is a document of my parents' deaths," she says, sipping tea in her publicist's New York office. "It's not. It's a document of the psychic terrain that I found myself in following these losses. In fact, the only 'tribute' song on the record is the 71 seconds of silence at the end, because my parents were both 71 when they died. That was just a nice nod to them." Yes, she says, loss was an inspiration, but it was more a jumping-off point than an end in itself. "Grief and loss lead you to other things--to an exploration of your own ancestry, to renegotiating the terms of your relationships with the dead, even to anger. So it's not just a death record or a tribute. I don't want to be the poster girl for grief and suffering."

Point taken. But to anyone who has endured the loss of a parent, the substance of "Black Cadillac" will certainly sound familiar--and yet utterly fresh. This was always Cash's goal, that "people would bring their own lives to it. It would be so uncomfortable if they thought it was just me singing about me and my feelings." The key to this album's success is that Cash wisely never tries to be wise. The songs are crowded with facts about her family and the details of their lives, right down to the furniture in their house by the lake in Tennessee, and yet, somehow, it is the specifics that in the end make these songs so universal. Is this a great album? Well, if greatness can be measured in the number of times a listener says, "Boy, did she get thatright," then it certainly is.

Singing over accompaniment as lean and lovely as a cane-bottomed porch rocker, she records that odd need to keep up a conversation gone silent on one side: "I am calling like a friend/from my future/from your memory/and it never has to end." She captures the craving for certainty and faith in a world gone wobbly on its axis, a craving made all the more vivid by plainspoken, explicit lyrics: "I wish I were a Christian, and knew what to believe." Unconventionally religious ("I like going to Episcopal services and I like doing Buddhist meditation"), she pens a hymn that preaches that all there is is holy, that "God is in the roses/the petals and the thorns." What distinguishes each song is the singer's adamant rejection of easy certainties. "There's a lot of paradoxes and yet there's determination to own all of it, even the deepest doubt," Cash says. "I didn't want to hedge any bets."

The Johnny Cash we meet in these songs is no iconic "Man in Black." His daughter's musical references to him are deeply personal, an implicit insistence on the privacy of their relationship. "People took his death very personally. I can't tell you the amount of material I got in the mail--the songs about him, the plays about him, the stories, the essays, the paintings. And although I appreciated that people felt so deeply about it, sometimes it was profoundly intrusive. People I didn't know at all would come up to me in a store and begin to cry about my father's death and not bother to say, 'I'm sorry you lost your dad.' They would just go on and on about their experience of Johnny Cash."

"Walk the Line" was the widescreen version of that experience. "It was like it would be for anyone who saw some-one else's idea of their childhood. You would say, well, some of those facts are right, but that's not what happened. That's not my experience." She gives a little shrug. "You know, I just don't have a need to see the Hollywood version of my father's drug addiction and my parents' breakup."

There's no false modesty in Cash's unpretentiousness. So while she winces when the word "dynasty" gets thrown into the conversation, she's still willing to take her place as a third-generation member of one of American music's oldest and most revered musical families (box). "When I was younger, I wanted no part of it," she says, "in the same way that anyone in their 20s wants to separate from their parents and make their own mark in the world. I was more stubborn about it and it took longer because my parents cast very big shadows. Now I feel incredibly proud."

Maybe that's one reason that the songs on "Black Cadillac" suggest that the past is not only not dead, it's not even past. "How can it be? I didn't realize that until I started to wonder, could I ever leave my own children, even in death? And the answer is, no, it's not possible. So it must not be possible for them to ever leave me. I'm certain about that, that the terms change but the relationship goes on. In some ways your parents can even be better parents to you, because there are no expectations anymore on either part. So when you lose the expectations, you're free to just get what you get. It's pretty pure." Whoa. Glad to hear it.

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