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Back in Black

"I always wanted to make a concept record," Rosanne Cash says of her latest CD, Black Cadillac. "I just didn't know it would be on this theme."

Nor would Cash have wished to be inspired in quite the way she was. After all, the disc's dark hue can be traced to a trio of tragedies that shook her to the core: the deaths of her father, Johnny Cash, her stepmother, June Carter Cash, and her mother, Vivian Liberto Cash Distin, between 2003 and 2005. The timing of Distin's passing was especially hideous; she departed on May 24, 2005, Cash's fiftieth birthday. "I've only had one birthday since she died, and it was a tough day -- but that first anniversary of your parent's death is always a tough day," she allows. "It didn't feel right to give it over to celebration, but it didn't feel right to give it totally over to mourning. So it was hard to navigate, and I imagine that will continue to be so. I even said to my sisters, 'I'm going to have to come up with a different birthday. Any suggestions?' And they said, 'You've definitely got to stay a Gemini.'"

The laugh that follows this recollection demonstrates that Cash isn't overwhelmed by sadness -- and neither is Cadillac. Rather than wallow in misery on the disc, she explores her emotions with a complexity and an eye for detail that's on par with The Year of Magical Thinking, author Joan Didion's acclaimed memoir about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. Cash, who lists Thinking among her favorite books from last year, concedes that the multifaceted quality of her reactions took her by surprise.

"Before all of these losses, I tended to think more in terms of black and white," she says. "I thought, well, you feel grief, and then your grief fades. But, well, no -- you feel a lot of things. You feel confusion and anger and moments of despair and moments of great liberation as well. There's a kind of reordering of your whole life. It's very complicated."

Most people would have preferred to work through these conflicting passions in private, but not Cash. Throughout her too-often-underrated career, she's mined her personal life for material, even when doing so meant plunging deep into unpleasantness; The Wheel, a 1993 album released in the wake of her divorce from singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, is a case in point. Cadillac was assembled at an even greater psychic cost, yet she willingly ponied up.

"I don't think artists have the option of walling everything inside," Cash says. "Even if I wanted to -- and certainly there were times when I wanted to -- there wasn't a choice, because doing that goes against my entire nature. In fact, sometimes I have to learn not to keep touching those feelings, particularly when they're not in service of a larger creative project. Just to touch them over and over can be detrimental and painful.

"But, you know, I feel lucky that I had a place to take this, that I'm a writer and a musician," she goes on. "I felt as if the record was a painting, a single painting -- which it is to me."

Indeed, Cadillac is an old-fashioned song cycle that can be appreciated cut by cut but is infinitely more rewarding when taken as a piece. The disc moves from the evocative title tune, which was actually written in the months before Cash's chain of sorrow got under way, to "0:71," the subtlest of codas; it's a blank track that clicks off one silent second for each year Johnny lived. In between, Cash wrestles with a panoply of sentiments and moods. The moniker affixed to "God Is in the Roses" suggests a standard country weeper, yet her description of a cemetery that "felt so much like home" beautifully captures the interplay between heartache and acceptance. In contrast, "Like Fugitives" brims with fury via couplets such as "It's a strange new world we live in/Where the church leads you to hell."

The roots of Cash's resentment on this last number aren't tough to trace. Although Johnny was a Christian icon, Cash's spiritual philosophy tends toward Buddhism -- and her opinions have made her a target of fundamentalists. "I get attacked by these so-called Christians who write to tell me that I'm going to hell, that my father was a good Christian and I'm not, that my father was a good American and I'm not, that I'm ruining the Cash name and all of this bullshit," she fumes. Such attacks are even more wrongheaded in her mind because of Johnny's actual beliefs. "My dad did have a very powerful faith, but his Christianity was infused with mysticism. He was very unusual in that respect," she says. "And he was very non-judgmental, unlike these right-wing Christians. They can be the most vicious."

Fortunately, Cash is hearing more compliments than criticism these days. Cadillac has earned impressive notices, and the opportunity to render the songs from it live has been "really rewarding, because they continue to evolve. Every night is slightly different because of what the audience brings to it and where I am -- all of those things that make live performance so exciting. It's a living art. It's not frozen." To keep her concerts lively, Cash has been mixing in ditties from throughout her career, including "Seven Year Ache" (from the terrific 1981 platter of the same name) and "Tennessee Flat Top Box," a hit for Johnny in the early '60s. In that sense, she says, "The show is tempered. There's stuff that still has a backbeat and is fun and moves you. It's not a memorial service."

Even so, the necessity to talk up an album whose subject matter may put off some music lovers has been "a little weighty, a little heavy," she admits, and the same can be said of lingering interest in Walk the Line, the Oscar-winning 2005 biopic about Johnny and June. Cash resented what she considered to be a negative and inaccurate portrayal of Vivian, but she didn't want to go overboard lambasting the flick for several reasons -- not the least of which was the presence on the credits of her stepbrother, John Carter Cash, who acted as one of the film's executive producers. "That was difficult for my whole family to deal with," she notes. "We were already feeling rather vulnerable, and for me, personally, I was just holding my breath, waiting for it to be over."

Of course, Cash knows that the public's fascination with Johnny, in particular, won't wane in her lifetime, and she's happy about that. But she enjoys those rare moments when she can be anonymous, which may explain why she signs many entries on her website diary "Love from Mrs. L." (She's married to John Leventhal, who produced much of Cadillac.) "I'm Mrs. L. right now," she enthuses. "I'm off on vacation with my husband and son, so for this week, I'm Mrs. L. When I go down to the market, I'm Mrs. L. When I call the carpet cleaner, I say, ŒHey, this is Mrs. Leventhal.'"

She's Mrs. Leventhal, too, when it comes to the death of her parents and stepmom. Individuals all over the world may have seen them as famous, but they meant the same thing to Cash as non-celebrity mothers and fathers mean to the rest of us -- and she prizes this connection to humanity at large. "Everyone is walking around with a loss that they've learned to manage their life around," she says. "And that's humbling.

"Loss becomes a part of you," she adds, "but hopefully it expands you in some way. Hopefully it expands your compassion toward others. But it changes you forever. It never goes back to the way it was."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts