Rosanne Cash

Carving out space

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Not long ago, I wrote about the children of musicians who choose musical careers for themselves. I talked about the benefits and detriments of such lineage, of the internal reckoning that must occur before a child follows in a musical parent’s footsteps, and spoke about the weight a musical surname can carry.

Some names, however, are so big and loom so large they make these discussions largely irrelevant. In the annals of popular American music, only a few monikers inhabit that special orbit and breathe that rarefied air. Presley comes to mind. Dylan is another. Personally, I’d add Wilson (as in Brian) and Gaye (as in Marvin) to the list, but your mileage and your heroes may vary.

And then there’s Cash.

Johnny Cash was a wholly American invention, a musical outlaw through and through. He was larger than life, could sing his ass off and could write the hell out of a song. He lived hard and loved harder and outlasted a lot of folks who said he wouldn’t. Words like “legend” and “icon” and “star” were supposedly coined to describe people like him, but they seem bland and boring when applied to Cash.

He was, and will forever be, the Man in Black.

I have to imagine that if you’re a Cash kid, and you find yourself making music, the only way to do so is on your own terms, critics and expectations be damned. And if your last name is Cash, that’s probably the only way you know how to do anything anyway. The trick is to seek your own spotlight, all the while knowing you’ll never be able to step fully from the shadow of your famous family. You have to strike out on your own, even though you’ll always end up right where you came from.

Because you’re a Cash, first and foremost, and everything follows from that.

Rosanne Cash—daughter of Johnny and his first wife, Vivian—probably had some sense of that when she joined her father on the road at his request shortly after graduating high school. She got her start as a wardrobe assistant, but it wasn’t long before she’d graduated to backing vocalist and occasional soloist. Certainly by the time she showed up on one of his albums, 1974’s The Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me, she’d figured out that establishing herself as an artist and continuing the Cash musical legacy were one and the same.

Luckily, Rosanne’s musical inheritance from her father was bountiful. You might even say she can sing her ass off and write the hell out of a song. Like father, like daughter, and all that.

Despite wearing her identity as the daughter of musical royalty front and center—after all, such a thing would be hard to hide—Rosanne has always been very much her own artist. Her voice, sound and style are markedly different from that of her father, and her successes have been earned on the strength of her skills rather than her family name. Being a Cash opens doors, but you don’t have major crossover commercial success, win a handful of Grammys, notch 11 chart-topping country singles (with a total of 21 Top 40 country singles overall) and two gold records unless you’re the real deal. Her albums are critically acclaimed, her songwriting is lauded and songs like “Seven Year Ache” “Never Be You,” and “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me” resonate with those who love her because she’s Johnny’s girl and those who couldn’t care less.

Although she’s carved out her own space in the Cash family, Rosanne has, all along her career, paid homage to who and where she came from. Her 1987 album, King’s Record Shop, included a cover of her father’s “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” which became another of her many No. 1 hits. In 2003, she and Johnny recorded a duet, “September When It Comes,” for her Grammy-nominated Rules of Travel. And, after the deaths of Johnny and June Carter Cash in 2003 and her mother Vivian in 2005, Rosanne recorded the deeply honest and utterly moving Black Cadillac, coming to terms, once again, on her own terms.

Since 1993, Cash’s regular musical co-conspirator has been neither her father nor her family name, but musician and producer John Leventhal. Married since 1995, the two live, perform and record together, which should doom any relationship, but in the Cash family, touring with your spouse is familiar territory. The two Grammy winners will take a wander through Rosanne’s more contemporary songs as well as her back catalogue when they play a Fri., Jan. 26 concert at the Mount Baker Theatre. She might even sing a song or two by her father. No matter, it’s all Cash to me.

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