SCOTT SIMON, host:
Rosanne Cash has been winning Grammies for 25 years for her songs and her singing. She wrote her latest CD, 'Black Cadillac' over a two-year period in which her father, her mother and stepmother all died. Ms. Cash, of course, is the daughter of Johnny Cash, whose face would be etched in Mt. Rushmore if it were in Nashville, and maybe even it weren't. Her mother was Vivian Liberto Cash Distin and her stepmother was June Carter Cash. We visited Rosanne Cash recently at her brownstone in New York City and asked what she hoped listeners will take from Black Cadillac.
ROSANNE CASH (Singer/Songwriter): My hope is that they bring their own lives to it; that they're not just hung up on the back story of the deaths of these people, because it's not a tribute record. But it is about the terrain of lost grief. And loss is not just one thing. I mean, it's also anger, and it's also liberation and the renegotiation of these relationships. You know, because I don't think that a relationship between parent and child ends when one person leaves the body. It goes on but you've got to find the new terms.
SIMON: And you supply both ends of the tangible conversation.
CASH: Yes, so I'm more in control. I like that.
SIMON: Black Cadillac came before you were kind of pitched into this experience, and tell us what was in your mind at first.
CASH: Well, my father's illness had been the background anxiety of me and my siblings' lives for ten years. But something about that spring, I started to be very aware that it was imminent; his loss was imminent. And I started dreading the public appropriation of grief.
(Soundbite of song "Black Cadillac")
SIMON: You're a public family.
CASH: Yes. Yes. I resist that when you say it. Everything in me goes, No. But it took me a while to accept that father belonged to the world.
CASH: And which he does. He does still more than ever. But during that particular period right after his death, I really didn't want him to belong to the world. And I resented the intrusion of people trying to engage me in also in mourning the loss of Johnny Cash. You know, it seemed incredibly insensitive to me. At the same, I appreciated how much love there was for him. But I had to protect myself so I withdrew for a while.
SIMON: Your father used to call you The Brain?
CASH: It was because he and I use to love to get into these philosophical and politically discussions. And you know, we kind of --once we started we shut everyone out, you know. If anyone wanted to join the conversation, they were lost. I really enjoyed that with my dad, actually.
(Soundbite of song "God Is In The Roses")
SIMON: God is in the Roses.
CASH: That's the first song I wrote after my dad died.
SIMON: Yes. There are some wonderful lines in here. But, of course, the one that I think will stop a lot of hearts is when you say, We're falling like petals. Is that how it felt in your family then?
CASH: Yes, it did. I mean, in that two-year period my aunt also died, my stepsister also died. It did. It felt like we were all falling around, the internal structure of our family. Which was that generation: my father, my stepmother and my mother.
(Soundbite of song "God Is In The Roses")
CASH: It's an odd feeling to become the wall between death and the generation behind you, between my children, you know?
CASH: It's comforting to feel the wall ahead of you with your parents. And when they're gone and you're the wall.
SIMON: Are you particularly eager, for example, your son wind up appreciating your -- your -- I don't mean appreciating in terms of just his music, but appreciating knowing your father.
CASH: Yes. You know, when he was two years old my father was sick, but it was still three, four years before my dad died. And he turned to me and he said I just want you to know how sorry I am I'm not going to see this child grow up. So he knew it was coming. And I thought of that so often that he had regrets. I may have regrets on behalf of my children, especially my son that he won't really remember his grandparents. But that they had regrets too, you know?
SIMON: Your song, The World Unseen.
CASH: I started writing that one shortly after my dad, around the same time as God is in the Roses. And it was an epiphany, really. I realized that this outcome isn't just particular to them; that we're all headed in that direction. I mean, that's the...
SIMON: But that's the Hank Williams line, right? No matter how much I struggle and strive, I'll never get out of this world alive. Yes.
CASH: It's a very prosaic realization that felt like an epiphany. So I started writing the song, which is not a funny song. I'm describing it as it is but it's not. And there was something comforting about that, you know? And then also to find the person you love in artifacts that they leave behind: in their geography, in their particular belongings, possessions. The bits of them that they leave behind, you know? There is something very comforting about that.
(Soundbite of song "The World Unseen")
CASH: And then I was almost finished writing the song, and then I went to Christmas Eve services at St. Luke's Church here in the Village. And they sang We Three Kings of Orient Are. And they sang that line, westward leading, still proceeding. Oh, I felt like somebody hit me over the head. I just -- I wrote it down on the program and I went home and I just put it right in the song.
SIMON: Well, great artist borrow.
CASH: Great artist steal.
SIMON: Great artist steal, that's right. Yes. Great artists don't borrow. They steal. That's right.
Before I ask you a little bit more about your music, it's inevitable this year; I haven't seen you quoted so much in this. What do you think of the movie?
CASH: 20th-Century Fox was very gracious and screened it for me in the summer. But it was shortly after my mom died and so it was a very painful experience. You know, I think that it was an honorable approach and the actors were good. At the same time, I don't know anyone who wants to see the screen version of their childhood.
CASH: It's just so unsettling, particularly your parents breakup, your father's drug addiction. Nobody wants to see that on the big screen. So it was really for people that this movie is not for; and that's me and my three sisters.
SIMON: Let me ask about the song, I Was Watching You
CASH: Yes. That song has the most love, I think, of any song on the record.
(Soundbite of song "I Was Watching You")
CASH: I imagined before I was born watching my parents as young people being married. And because they had both told me separately the songs they heard on the radio on their honeymoon, so I put that in the song, Hank Williams on the radio. And it seemed like love was the thing that sustained us and survived us.
So in three verses: the first verse is before I was born, the second verse is my childhood, the third verse is after their deaths and they're the ones who are saying I was watching you -- I'll be watching you.
(Soundbite of song "I Was Watching You")
SIMON: This is the first album your father hasn't -- oh, wait. I almost said that your father hasn't heard, but we've also been talking about a song in which the fact that...
CASH: That he does hear, right.
CASH: That actually has been one of the hardest things for me because that's a place where I, particularly with my father, we met over music and playing songs for each other. So the idea that he didn't hear this, or hasn't heard it, has been very painful for me.
And in fact, when I wrote the song, The Good Intent, which I a song about our ancestry, 300 years of the Cash ancestry, I was in a taxi coming down Fifth Avenue and it hit me. And I -- no, first I thought to myself I've got call dad and play this song for him over the phone. And hit me I was not going to call dad and play this song. And I think that's when it sunk in that he was gone. That was the moment. That was a life changing moment.
So I hope that what I wrote in I Was Watching You is right and that they do hear. And that they know that I acknowledged how much service they had provided to me in their lives.
SIMON: Thank you. Thanks for all your time.
CASH: Oh, that was hard.
SIMON: Thank you.
CASH: Thank you.
(Soundbite of Johnny Cash with Rosanne as a baby)
(Soundbite of song "The Good Intent")
SIMON: Rosanne Cash's new album Black Cadillac is dedicated in memory to June Carter Cash, John R. Cash and Vivian Liberto Cash Distin.
Rosanne Cash performs a special concert on Friday, February three at noon Eastern Time. You can hear it webcast live on our website npr.org.
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.