Like an old friend once said, it's pop music and there's no right or wrong choice; you like what you like for no real reason, but because something hits you up there or down there or, better yet, somewhere in between (your heart, in case you took a wrong turn). Every now and then you need to satisfy your jones for something that makes you grin and gets you off, but ultimately it's the fix that doesn't last. What endures are those songs and artists that talk to you, speak for you, feel for you--make you remember, most of all, you're alive and screwed-up and capable of doing better and feeling better no matter how awful it all seems. You need someone who sympathizes but never judges, who imparts wisdom but with the caveat they'll keep making the same mistakes, too--a friend, in other words, even if you'll never meet.
Which brings us, more or less, to Rosanne Cash, who, over the past 25 years, has become one of those headphone buddies you feel like you've known your entire life. She's the friend who will say what you won't, who will do what you can't, who will make public that which you keep private (like, say, her deep-felt anti-war views, which she has posted on her Web site). She's the one you turn to for advice, though she will be the first to admit she's as screwed-up as you; she's the one you turn on for solace, though she will be the first to admit she's in as much turmoil as you. "My husband will always kind of shake his head and go, 'Nobody would believe what goes on in your head, because it must be so difficult to be you,'" Cash says, referring to her producer and occasional songwriting partner, John Leventhal.
But before you knock her for writing lullabies for grown-ups--meaning, she isn't tough enough for you--consider: She's done her stint in rehab (very Rock and Roll), grew up in the shadow of a big Man in Black and, as Lester Bangs once said, "everybody needs a little vicarious pain." Cash long ago stopped being the daughter of a myth and became a mother to four children of her own and, in a small way, to an audience that looks to a few singer-songwriters for a little nurturing. Till the release of Rules for Travel two weeks ago, her first album in seven years, it used to be her songs were about herself, which built for Rosanne Cash a fanatical audience of people interested in her ongoing autobiography and how it could, on occasion, apply to them. (You know--the more personal, the more universal.)
Her 1990 album Interiors revealed the intimate details of her deteriorating marriage to Rodney Crowell, who produced the disc, as he had done several earlier ones. Though she would later frown upon it being described as her "divorce album," one couldn't listen to such lines as "both of us separate but neither one free" or a song like "Paralyzed," about a woman hearing her husband on the phone with another woman, without feeling a bit like a voyeur.
That she invited you into the house to witness the arguments--the name-calling, the plate-throwing--only endeared her to the audience, which had found in Cash one of those rare singer-songwriters whose confessions sounded like familiar echoes of our own buried conversations. Though her new album is less first-person--less "narcissistic," she says--it's no less intimate and vulnerable. It deals with familiar subjects--"I love the nooks and crannies of intimacy, I love the exploration of that territory," she says, "and I love the differences between men and women"--but feels less sad and more confident. It's as if the tourist found on 1987's King's Record Shop and 1993's The Wheel, among others, has become the tour guide.
"I've never really talked about this before because, in print, it could sound, uh, flaky or egocentric, but I always do remind myself that it's not about me," Cash says from her home in New York City. "If I get to channel some kind of energy in performance or on record and provide some kind of mirror for people, or some kind of outlet or some kind of understanding of themselves through the songs, then it's not me necessarily doing it. Yes, I had to refine my skills enough to be able to support it, but it still is the vast realm of creative energy I'm tapping into, you know, and I think that's God, that creative realm. And it's just being available to be connected to it. I really feel that it all has to be done with love. Even protest, even civil disobedience, even anger--it has to be done with love. We're all connected and we're responsible for each other, and if you lead with malice, it's just too destructive."
There's a reason rock critics--and Nation writers--love Rosanne Cash: because she's a writer of prose and essays who also happens to play guitar, possess a wondrous voice (Metaphor No. 148: warm steam off a frozen pond at dawn; Metaphor 593: a down comforter on a winter's night; there's plenty more), conjure resonant melodies and have for a father one of music's most legendary figures she's now comfortable to talk about. At last, they even sing together on Rules of Travel: The song's called "September When it Comes," and though it could and should apply to any child making peace with an aging, ailing parent, the fact it's Johnny and Rosanne trading lines about lengthening shadows that will "fly me like an angel to a place where I can rest" makes it feel like a family heirloom.
"But if it was just about me and my dad, then it kind of reduces it to narcissism," she insists. "It's about that exchange that goes on with an adult child and a parent facing mortality and the changes that happen then and that adult child coming to some sort of resolution about her childhood and past, which is common to all of us, if you're the least bit awake. Then it's served its purpose; then it is of service. Just about me and my dad--ultimately, who cares?"
Rosanne Cash is this perfect package, the readymade profile: literate, confident, outspoken, funny, pretty as hell, sharper than a shiv. In the seven years since her last release--10 Song Demo, a collection of rough tracks with burnished edges--Cash lost her voice (a polyp developed on her vocal cords), gained a fourth child (son Jake, now 4) and embarked on a career as essayist and short-story writer. She wrote for such places as The Oxford American and Martha Stewart Living, and in '96 Avon published Bodies of Water, a collection of short stories that read like her songs: They were populated by ghosts of dead relatives and dead relationships, by memories that got in the way like roadblocks, by mothers struggling to give birth and raise kids and, in one instance, by a singer-songwriter who was only free during those two hours she was onstage.
Seven years on, she's unbound all the time, consequences be damned: Cash knows she did herself no favors when, on February 27, she appeared at a Manhattan news conference announcing the formation of Musicians United to Win Without War. Along with the likes of Wilco, R.E.M. and Outkast, she signed her name to an ad that appeared in The New York Times that week, which read, in enormous type, "War in Iraq is Wrong and We Know It" and proclaimed, "Don't let Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld drown out the voices of reason!"
Three weeks later, just as war broke out, Cash posted to her Web site, www.rosannecash.com, an essay in which she condemned the Bush administration for launching a pre-emptive first strike against Iraq and those who would damn war protesters for being anti-American. "I am American by birth, by choice and by love, and the right of free speech is the tenet I hold most dear," she wrote. "Therefore I am not afraid to say, as an American and a mother, that I think this war is a grave mistake, but I do support the young men and women who have been sent to fight it, and I wish them a hasty return home." Though it's doubtful her anti-war stance will affect album sales--she's no Natalie Maines, that coward--it sure ain't gonna help her.
"But it wasn't a career move," she says, with that familiar tinge of defiance. "I mean, the way I was raised was that you have to have the courage of your convictions, even if they're unpopular. And I'm a citizen, too. I get to say what I think. Yeah, I didn't do myself any favors in one regard, but in another regard, I can tell my grandchildren that I was against the war and I said so. I get letters from people saying they're going to tell everybody not to buy my records and calling me every name in the book. I'll tell you something really funny, though.
"My daughter, who's 21, she's really good at doing fan mail and stuff, so I hired her to go through the e-mails. If they're just photo requests or something, she refers them where to send their requests, all that stuff. So, the poor thing, right after I signed the petition and did the press conference with David Byrne and Russell Simmons, I got, you know, 500 e-mails, and a lot of them were incredibly nasty--name-calling, abusive, blah blah blah. She's not supposed to write back to these people, but she said, 'Mom, I just couldn't help it.' And I was like, 'Oh, my God, what did you say?' She said, 'I told her, "If you ever talk to my mother like that again, I will hunt you down. I am not peaceful like she is."' I thought it was so great. 'I am not peaceful like she is.'"