MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

(Soundbite of song, "Sea of Heartbreak")

NORRIS: Rosanne Cash, the daughter of Johnny Cash, has had a remarkable career of her own as a singer-songwriter. For her latest album, released last year, she chose a dozen songs off a list of essential tunes compiled by her father, and recorded them with the likes of Bruce Springsteen.

(Soundbite of song, "Sea of Heartbreak")

Ms. ROSANNE CASH (Singer-Songwriter) and Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) The sea of heartbreak, lost love and loneliness, memories of your caress...

NORRIS: But despite her professional successes, Rosanne Cash's life has not been without difficulties: a miscarriage, losing her voice, brain surgery, the deaths of her parents. Now, in a new memoir called "Composed," Cash writes in detail about those events and others that have shaped her.

At times, her writing has a certain cadence to it, her stories rendered much like the lyrics of a good country song. In one haunting chapter, she writes about a roadside encounter on an icy, cold night in 1981.

Ms. CASH: I was eight months' pregnant. We were driving home from a recording session, and we first passed an ambulance on the side of the road and a police car, and we saw a man laying flat on his back. And we slowed, but it was clear there was nothing we could do. And we went on, and we saw this woman marching up the road in these plastic shoes, and we asked if we could help her. And she said, oh, yes. And she said, I've heard there's a disturbance, and my husband was out walking. And we both froze because we had seen this man lying on his back.

And I knew it was not our place to give her this news, but I was just, you know, kind of paralyzed with the knowledge and what she was going to learn in about 30 seconds, that we already knew. And we drove her back up. And she got out of the car, and a friend came up to her to speak to her. And as we drove away, we heard her screaming. And I was eight months' pregnant - as I said - so I put my hands over my ears and I said, I can't feel this now; I can't take this in.

And many years later, I heard this record of keening at the grave, this Irish keening. And the woman's voice came back to me - just suddenly. I thought, well, this is how the heart sounds when it's broken open.

NORRIS: Rosanne, when you write about that night, you described, as you say, putting your hands over your ears, but you also said that you had to borrow from your future that night to protect your unborn baby.

Ms. CASH: Mm-hmm.

NORRIS: And as a reader, what's interesting - because you're now writing as an older, wiser woman, in some ways, looking back on that younger woman who didn't quite know how to handle that moment.

Ms. CASH: You know, on a purely physiological level, you don't want those adrenaline surges or fear, beating heart to be pumped through to, you know, the baby inside of you.

But borrowing from my future meant that when I finally did allow myself to feel it, it was kind of magnified, you know, and it still resonates here, 28 years later.

NORRIS: What an interesting idea, though, to borrow from your future, knowing that you will have strength and wisdom and fortitude...

Ms. CASH: Right.

NORRIS: ...that you don't have now, but that you're certain is going to be there in spades when you need it later.

Ms. CASH: That is something - if I could teach my children one thing, it would be that very thing.

NORRIS: That something different, something stronger is over the horizon?

Ms. CASH: Well, that whatever they're going through now, whatever difficult thing, that hopelessness isn't necessary because later on, you may have the tools, the wisdom, the experience to understand why you're going through it now, and what it means. And if you have to compartmentalize it, then do so because you'll figure it out later.

NORRIS: You know, to look back over your shoulder with great deliberation, to write a memoir or something that's very difficult, is that - is a special kind of exercise. It's like stretching to touch your toes, and you might not get there at first, but you have to keep trying and stretching and eventually, you sort of get there. What did you have to do to go back in time and capture moments? Were you helped by going back through your own catalog of music? Did you have to go through your diaries? Or was there a much more spiritual exercise to go back and see the past?

Ms. CASH: I didn't listen to my old records, even though I wrote about the making of each record. I really didn't want to listen to the records. I wanted to remember what it was like to make them.

And what was interesting is that I found that once I started writing about different scenes and experiences and records and songs in my life, that a lot of the details would start to surface, you know? I'd see what I was wearing or what I had for a meal that day or who else was in the room, you know? Maybe - it was kind of comforting to realize that the memories were all there intact, even if I didn't think I could access them, that they were there.

There were some things that were more difficult to write about than others. Certainly, writing about the deaths of my parents was painful again. But I'm kind of geeky in the way that I'm sometimes better on paper than I am in person.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASH: I didn't know how I felt about certain things until I wrote about them. I didn't understand the full meaning of certain things until I wrote about them.

NORRIS: You know, people already know a lot about Johnny Cash and your stepmother, June Carter Cash. And in the book, we learn a lot more about your mother, Vivian Liberto, and what it's like being married to Johnny Cash - which was really, in some ways, like being married to the music business.

Ms. CASH: Yeah. Well, she was not prepared for that level of fame. Public life was totally not suited to her nature. She had a lot of natural anxiety and a very heightened sense of privacy, so this was really oil and water for her. And you know, that, combined with my father's drug addiction and constant travel, it was too much. I just don't know how the marriage could possibly have survived. As it turns out, she created a life that was very well-suited for her. You know, she had a wide circle of friends. She was involved in her community. So she ended up living a very graceful and complete life.

NORRIS: And it sounds like she really helped you define life on your own terms, to see yourself as Rosanne Cash - not just Johnny Cash's daughter.

Ms. CASH: She did in that she was a very strong personality herself and a very independent woman. So that was a great model for me. In another way, she had a lot of fear about me going into a public profession. And she also had fear, basically, about how much travel I did. And she would always say little prayers and put them in a box whenever I was flying somewhere. It was so sweet. After her death, I found all of these prayers in her God box.

So as young people do, in pushing away from their parents and trying to find out who they were, her anxiety about me and my life was a perfect thing to push off of, you know? If she's afraid for me to do this, then I'm definitely going to do it. It turns out - it turned out well for both of us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Rosanne Cash, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.

Ms. CASH: It's always my pleasure, Michele.

NORRIS: Rosanne Cash. Her latest book is called "Composed: A Memoir."

(Soundbite of song, "Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow")

Ms. CASH: (Singing) My heart is sad and I am in sorrow for the only one I love. When shall I see him? Oh, no, never, till we meet in heaven above.

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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