Reviewed by Jeff Baker
When Johnny Cash was in ill health a few years before his death, his daughter wrote a remarkable song called "September When It Comes." Rosanne Cash's husband, John Leventhal, suggested she ask her father to sing it with her as a duet. She put him off twice until Leventhal, who wrote the melody, insisted that now was the time and this was the song.
Rosanne Cash flew to Nashville and showed her father the lyrics and he agreed to sing them. They went to a cabin on his property where he had a recording studio and got to work. Johnny Cash was not feeling well but rose to the challenge like the great artist he was.
"As he learned the song, he got stronger with every take," Rosanne Cash writes in her new memoir Composed. "I stood listening on the other side of the glass of the vocal booth, tears rolling down my face at the beauty of his performance."
"I cannot move a mountain now," Johnny Cash sang. "I can no longer run. I cannot be who I was then. In a way, I never was."
The lyric shows an amazing sensitivity to aging and death, to the understanding that a legend is still a man, and to how a daughter can grow up in her father's shadow and find her way to the sun and to a mature relationship with him. If "September When It Comes" was Rosanne Cash's last word on Johnny Cash, and if all the other songs she's written were her artistic legacy, it would be more than enough. Rosanne Cash is a brilliant singer and songwriter who at 55 has come back to the top of her game after brain surgery and a knee-buckling series of family tragedies.
She's also a talented writer who's published a book of short stories and taught classes in the creative process, skills that serve her well in Composed, an episodic memoir that breaks her life down into impressionistic stories. The book does follow Cash's life in a fairly straight line and is surely more of a narrative than Bob Dylan's "Chronicles"; there are many times when she's more interested in sharing a story or catching a mood than getting everything down for the record. This is not a tell-all memoir -- there's nothing about Cash's difficult separation and divorce from Rodney Crowell and nothing more than a general statement of displeasure about Walk the Line, a movie she clearly despises for its unfair treatment of her mother, Vivian Liberto.
Rosanne Cash is the oldest of Johnny Cash's four daughters. She grew up a California kid with a famous father who was gone most of the time and erratic and addicted when he was home. Her parents split when she was 12 and she spent idyllic summers in Tennessee after her father cleaned up and married June Carter. She was dreamy and artistic, the kind of girl who would "nurture magnificent surges of melancholy and longing, which I attempted to turn into bad poetry."
Music pulled Rosanne Cash like the moon pulls a tide, and she didn't resist. She started traveling with her father's tours when she was a teenager and learned to play guitar from Helen Carter, one of June's sisters in the First Family of country music. Her father encouraged her and in one of the many wonderful moments in Composed, she recounts a conversation with Johnny Cash about the old songs he loved so much:
'I know all of them!' he boasted happily.
I thought about those old songs all night long and called him back first thing the next morning so he could sing the entirety of 'Sweeter Than the Flowers' to me. He paused at the end as I scribbled down the lyrics.
'There's a whole other group of songs, if you're interested,' he said.
'About what?' I asked.
'Dead dogs,' he answered solemnly, and proceeded to rattle off a list of titles.
Always independent, Rosanne Cash is the kind of artist who isn't afraid to stand up for herself while keeping a full closet of insecurities locked away from view. She recorded her first album in Germany, alone and inexperienced, but refused to sing a song called "Lucky" that she knew would be a hit because she knew she'd have to sing it for the rest of her life and it wasn't worth it. Her career took off when she teamed up with Crowell for "Seven Year Ache" and reached a creative and commercial peak with "King's Record Shop" in 1987. A move to New York and off Columbia Records started a new phase of Cash's life, filled with writing and painting and more intimate concerts.
Some of the best writing in Composed is the eulogies she delivered for her stepmother, her father and her mother. All that pain in such a short period, and she was able to remember June Carter as someone who knew two kinds of people, "those she knew and loved, and those she didn't know and loved." For Johnny Cash, it "was not the scope of his artistry and his remarkable body of work which made him great. He was already great. The music just came out of it."
The grace and strength that Rosanne Cash got from her parents carried her through the difficult time after their deaths. There were other shocks -- brain surgery and a very harrowing 9/11 experience -- but the circle is unbroken and the release of "The List" last year and of this honest book makes it stronger.
Books mentioned in this post