Friday, September 14, 2012

Rosanne Cash: The Gritty Cosmopolitan/ The Disarmingly Modest Artist

     Rosanne Cash has been one of the most idiosyncratic American writers of the past thirty years.  She began with songwriting and has added children’s fiction and a memoir, Composed, to the mix.  Music’s commercial establishment has always wrestled with typing her because an artist i.e. ‘brand’ is easier to sell to the masses.  She was country, alternative country, country/pop, alternative, and
now Americana.  Her music, because of her writing voice, runs deeper than cycles of categorization.  Even in her twenties, her voice was always that of a woman.  Much as I like Carrie Underwood, she still seems like a girl.  If she sang Cash’s Grammy-winning “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,” she’d sing it with sincerity and vocal power, whereas Cash was both completely knowing and in her battle with the arrangement almost succumbing to neurosis.  

     I liked her in high school, though I couldn’t discern a greater depth to her music than Juice Newton’s, a major commercial contemporary of hers at that time.  I loved King’s Record Shop, where I understood her excellence, and lent my tape copy to a friend in graduate school and never saw it again.  Country music exploded in the ‘90s, but it went pop – almost a neo-Nashville sound – to do so and ‘80s acts like Cash, the Judds, and Randy Travis were shunted aside.  Cash leaned toward a more minimal, personal sound while other performers in her vein such as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin, and Lucinda Williams emerged to carry the Americana genre flag.  

     I reconnected with Cash when I heard “The Rules of Travel” with its entrancing bridge on WNKU in 2003.  I was knocked out by the album and I’ve looked forward to each of her subsequent albums – Black Cadillac and The List – and been rewarded with terrific works.  Composed is a lovely book because she is simultaneously honest and discreet.  She crafts her prose like a poet – like a songwriter, obviously – and reveals the proverbial tip and its reflection through vignette while suggesting the immensity of the emotional iceberg.  

Growing Up in the Cash Family
     She’s dealt with a legendary background:  a father who is to American pop music what Abraham Lincoln was to American politics.  (If that’s hyperbole, remember that he united the proponents of the Nashville sound and the Outlaws, and featured Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Odetta, Louis Armstrong, and The Staple Singers among the top country performers of that era and went on to cover Trent Reznor).  She’s raised a large family by two husbands in both a log cabin and a Chelsea townhouse.  (Her power as a maternal figure and a writer/performer/producer is reminiscent of her step-grandmother Mother Maybelle Carter).  She’s pushed forward the singer-songwriter’s boundaries while reaching further back to her family’s roots.  

Rosanne, Stepmother June Carter Cash, and Johnny Cash
at the 1996 Kennedy Center Honors
     Some of the most memorable stories are when she reconnects with the inhabitants of a Scottish town where her father filmed a Christmas special (it was also the home of his forebears) and the morning of the 9/11 attacks when she was attending a PTA meeting with her daughter in downtown New York City.  However, some of the most emotionally compelling writing is in her eulogies for her parents and stepmother.  The breadth of her humanity, depth of her appreciation for her roots, and her elegant humor are realized there and are the grounding for her songs.

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