When your last name is Cash and you’re a singer-songwriter, you’ll be pulling a golden, albeit loaded, weight behind you all your life. For every success story born of privilege, there are five tragic tales warning of the burden of excess and expectation.
That’s how it could have turned out for Rosanne Cash, daughter of the legendary, late Johnny Cash and stepdaughter of June Carter of the iconic Carter family. Instead, after a brief detour into the excessive side of life (she’s been open about her substance abuse, for which she sought treatment in 1984), the Grammy Award-winning musician and celebrated essayist has spent the last three decades pursuing the proverbial happy medium: establishing herself in her own right and reckoning with her impressive and vast musical lineage.
Cash has an innate ability to shift genres and influences seamlessly, from country to rock to traditional Americana, thanks to a musical education that began in earnest when, as a teenager, she joined her father for the first time on the road.
“There were hours in the dressing room with the Carter women, and Carl Perkins was there, too, a lot, while my dad was on stage,” Cash recalls, over the phone from her home in New York. “I was just learning guitar and learning these songs. Helen Carter taught me a lot. Anita taught me some, Maybelle even showed me some things, June taught me some things, but Helen put in the time with me to teach me how to play. And how to play that distinctive, what was called the Carter scratch, which Maybelle invented, which was a way of playing rhythm and lead at the same time. It’s a really distinctive thing that she invented and I don’t think she gets enough credit for being the great guitar player that she was. And I still play a version of that.”
But it wasn’t just technique that the Carters handed down — it was also the songs.
“Obviously the body of songs they taught me were life-changing,” Cash says. “I learned a real appreciation for Appalachian ballads and that whole language and the connection to Elizabethan folk songs through Celtic music. It stuck with me and made a huge imprint on my soul.”
Cash has been revisiting these kinds of memories and this music ever since her father and stepmother passed away within months of each other in 2003. She channeled some of her grief into her 2006 album, Black Cadillac, before feeling ready to tackle 2009’s The List, which was based on a list of essential songs her father gave her back on that first tour. She’s now in the finishing stages of her upcoming album, Modern Blue, which was slated for release this September but has now been pushed back to January 2014.
“Black Cadillac [was] that map of loss, then touching ancestry and legacy, and now past, present, and future,” Cash says.
It began with trips to Arkansas and Memphis after Arkansas State University bought her dad’s childhood home. Cash signed on to help with fundraising for the restoration and she began revisiting her roots, and she couldn’t help but feel a spark. “I didn’t grow up in the Delta like my dad did, but you know, you find things that are part of your cellular memory, and it was so much part of him and it became so much a part of me,” Cash says.
Even though Cash says she didn’t grow up listening to Southern gospel or Delta blues, she couldn’t ignore the profound impact of experiencing a place so pivotal and fundamental to her father’s origins. “It just started soaking into me and then I went down to Alabama a couple times, too, then John [Leventhal, her husband and collaborator] and I took this drive through Mississippi, Arkansas, and Alabama, and it just started — my heart opening in this new way to the South,” Cash says. “All of the songs are rooted in the South in some way. It’s so exciting. I feel more excited about this record than I did about my first record. I feel so lucky.”