What does it take to free yourself from radio-driven time constraints and rhyme schemes, to allow yourself to explore life’s bountiful word store; picking and choosing until your cart is full and heart is satisfied? For Rosanne Cash, it took losing her voice to polyps related to pregnancy hormones for two- and-a-half years. This time threatened her sense of self yet also provided an opportunity to delve into writing prose.
Cash has come full circle, from the nine-year-old winner of a poetry contest, to English major, to a back-up singer for her father, country legend Johnny Cash, to a singer/songwriter and back to prose again.
“One day I’ll stop singing, but I’ll never stop writing. If I hadn’t been a songwriter, I wouldn’t be a singer. I can’t say the reverse,” Cash says. “I never valued being a singer nearly as much as being a writer, which is where my self-esteem and self-image was. But when I was confronted with the possibility of never singing again, that my singing voice was gone forever, it was devastating. I couldn’t believe how tied in it was to my own sense of self-esteem.”
“My excursion into prose helped my songwriting in a deep way,” she confides. “I was no longer bound by a three-and-a-half minute format or a rhyme scheme. It had a liberating effect that carried over.”
Patience and a voice therapist eventually returned Cash’s voice, which started to return in 2000. Today, at nearly 50, her voice is stronger but more relaxed than it was before her temporary loss.
Cash has always seemed destined for the spotlight. At 18 she left California to sing back-up on one of her father’s tours so she could spend time with him. She also discovered a musical role model in Joni Mitchell.
“I used to think that being famous was the worst thing that could happen to a person,” she says. “At this point it is a 100 percent blessing. I am incredibly blessed and so grateful to be part of a tradition. When I was younger, I was obviously in much more conflict about it, trying to figure out where my place was in the world.”
As she stepped out from behind her father’s shadow, Cash initially made Nashville executives uncomfortable with her nontraditional use of pop and rock. Even today, she is not afraid to make waves that other Nashville artists might not, making no secret that she opposes the war in Iraq and the administration’s preemptive strike policy. She also performs Bob Dylan’s “License to Kill” despite the backlash against the Dixie Chicks.
Her Grammy-winning song, “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me” (co-written with then-husband and songwriting partner Rodney Crowell), might be heard as a complaint about a lack of country music industry awards. Yet Cash has won Billboard’s Top Singles Artist in 1988, scored five consecutive number ones and been nominated for a Grammy with her album, The Wheel, in the Best Contemporary Folk category.
Cash kicked off her career with three top-25 country hits and her ten albums have produced eleven chart-topping singles including “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me” (Tom Petty), “Never Be You,” “Tennessee Flat Top,” and John Hiatt’s “The Way We Make a Broken Heart.”
Her latest and most contemporary album, Rules of Travel, has a touch of melancholy, but the songs never fall into the quagmire of angst. Cash’s literate folk-pop lyrics are matched by a deliberate pacing, but any trace of past navel-gazing has been washed away.
Without a singing voice however, Cash was uncomfortably vulnerable, both metaphorically and literally, and needed another outlet.
“Now I’m so glad it (losing her voice) happened. I might not have given prose the kind of focus that I had given singing.”
Cash has written a children’s book, “Penelope Jane: A Fairy Tale,” a short-story collection, “Bodies of Water,” and fiction and essays for magazines, including Rolling Stone, Performing Songwriter, New York Times and New Yorker. She also edited “Songs Without Rhyme: Prose by Celebrated Songwriters”.
There is a school of thought that the good times can take away some of a creative person’s creativity and drive. It’s a position that Cash, who came back from drug abuse in her early 20s, refutes.
“There’s really no merit in going to dark places and exploring them and destroying yourself in the process. There’s no up side. We desperately need artists to reflect things back to ourselves.”
Cash also warns budding songwriters to not buy into the myth that you need to be miserable to write.
“You have to learn how to have a real relationship and make your own bed,” she offers. “You have to know where your car keys are and be honest and show up for your kids and yet go to scary danger places to write about them. Jackson Pollack was a great artist but he destroyed himself in the pursuit of that art. It’s never worth it.”
Cash had to make an internal shift to heed her own advice, to release the self-absorption and narcissism in her own songwriting and to learn at what point the self-critic and editor belong in the process.
“I rewrite and edit, but not in the beginning. I get it all down first in a rush of inspiration, then refine as I go. There’s no more merit in a song if it comes out in one ten-minute splash. It doesn’t mean it’s a great song.”
Despite the recent loss of her father, life is now on a more even keel than when Cash was a rising star. “I enjoy singing more. To me, it has more nuance. And I’m not as afraid of going deep into a little corner. I know I’ll come out.”
This story by Sharon Wootten was the cover story in ROCKRGRL Issue #53, January/February 2005.