Walking a Fine 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 found herself in following those losses. 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 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. Arriving in the midst of all these 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. 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 plain-spoken, 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 "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 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 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 that right," then it certainly is. Glad to hear it.