MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm a Manoush Zomorodi.
And if you've ever heard a song and instantly been transported back in time, you know the power of music to punctuate an event in your life or distill a moment in history. Musician Rosanne Cash calls this the rhythm and rhyme of memory. And she says it's the force behind her songwriting.
ROSANNE CASH: There's a mystery and a magic at the center of this process that's really undefinable and unexplainable. And when you touch that, you're touching something of the divine. It's this creative source.
ZOMORODI: That creative source has led her to record 15 albums over the past four decades and win four Grammy Awards. It also, she says, helped her accept the scrutiny that came with being the legendary Johnny Cash's daughter and, more recently, confront America's painful past, including her family's own role in that history.
R CASH: I often don't know what I feel or think. And I don't know how to process things. And I don't know what I want until I write about it.
ZOMORODI: On this episode, we explore the links between memory and music with singer, songwriter and musician Rosanne Cash, who is incredibly cool and funny and punctual.
Wait a minute, it's exactly 9 a.m. and we're both recording and ready to go.
R CASH: (Laughter).
ZOMORODI: How is that even possible?
R CASH: It's unheard of.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A FEATHER'S NOT A BIRD")
R CASH: (Singing) A stone is not a mountain, but a river runs through me.
ZOMORODI: And off we go.
Rosanne Cash, hello, and thank you so much for being here.
R CASH: Hi, Manoush. I'm thrilled to talk to you.
ZOMORODI: So, Rosanne, I have to imagine that as the daughter of Johnny Cash, there was probably a good amount of music in your life as a child. Was it something that was just everywhere? I mean, I know that your dad had his first single put out just a couple months after you were born.
R CASH: About a month, actually.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRY, CRY, CRY")
JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) I wasted my time when I would try, try, try 'cause when the lights have lost their glow, you'll cry, cry, cry.
R CASH: Yeah. It was in the house all the time - and not just what my father was playing - you know, Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie and, you know, Hank Williams and all of the older country stars and Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the gospel and blues. All of that was around.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP ABOVE MY HEAD")
SISTER ROSETTA THARPE: (Singing) Up above my head. Up above my head. I hear music in the air.
R CASH: But then when my dad was on the road, what my mother played was also incredibly influential. She loved Patsy Cline.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE")
PATSY CLINE: (Singing) Well I guess that I was just your puppet you held on a string.
R CASH: And then when I was old enough to discover the songs on the radio for myself, then it was the Beatles.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I SAW HER STANDING THERE")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) Well, she was just 17.
R CASH: I learned to love the Beatles and Patsy Cline and blues and Southern gospel and Marty Robbins and, you know, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It was all swirling around.
ZOMORODI: In the talk you gave in 2021, which is called "The Rhythm And Rhyme Of Memory, Solitude And Community," you say that in your family there was a song for every loss, every celebration, every unspoken need, every longing. And I guess I would think, wow, that is a family that is great at communicating with each other. But that was not necessarily the case, right?
R CASH: No. Well, what you describe is the - if that was actually carried out, if that was actually something that was happening, the idea that we could sit down and go, this is how I'm feeling, and here's the song for it - no. What happened is that I found those songs for myself. They helped explain me to my selves, you know, that indefinable longing or sadness or melancholy or hope or loss or thrill. There were songs for every most nuanced expression of all of those emotions. There are songs for each one. And I was able to find them, you know?
There's something in my DNA that was attuned to that language. But the - my house was much more chaotic. I think that the - music is how I made sense of a lot of things, and it was my particular kind of special cave that I went into. You know, my father was a drug addict in my early years. My mother was not equipped to handle either a partner who was a drug addict or fame. And those are the two things that kind of permeated our household - and then my mother's anger and fear and grief about all of those things. So there was not a lot of room for other emotion.
And I think me and my sisters were - we didn't have anything explained to us. You know, they didn't talk to kids back then. There was no way they were going to sit down and say, look, your father's a drug addict, and here's what's happening. No. So the confusion and fear, you know? - and children think, oh, that's - this has to be my fault. It was complicated.
ZOMORODI: What were some of the ways that you coped with having a dad who was so famous?
R CASH: The thing is, is that I my family was so abnormal that I looked for, what did normal families do? I loved the "Little House On The Prairie" series because, you know, the washing was on Monday, and the baking was on Tuesday. And you did this and you didn't wear this, and you didn't speak like this. And I thought, OK, that's normal. And I wanted to create my own sense of normalcy.
ZOMORODI: So if you didn't live a normal childhood and you were looking for normalcy, what are some of your first memories, or what did you think you would grow up to become?
R CASH: Oh, I knew I would be a writer. I had a dream when I was 13 years old, and it was of my mother and my grandmother. And they were sitting at a card table. And they were vacant, just vacant behind the eyes and rote in their actions. And they kept putting cards slowly on the table to each other. And I woke up in a sweat at 13. And I said to myself, I will never be a card player. And I wrote my dad a letter - my dad was on the road - about my - those impulses. I didn't want to live in that kind of deadening routine. I wanted to do something that touched the divine. I didn't use those words at that time. But he wrote me back, and he said, I see that you see as I see.
R CASH: And I held on to that. And I realized that there was a template for me to be who I was in the world, and it wasn't to copy, but it was to explore and find myself. And in some ways, my dad and I had a simpler relationship than I had with my mother. She saw that I was - there was some kind of DNA thread that was similar to my dad's, that I was an artist. And I think she saw that from a young age, and it terrified her.
ZOMORODI: So you started writing pretty early on.
R CASH: Yeah. Well, I did write poetry starting from about the age of 8 or 9. Rhyme and language were already - even from the time I was 3, my mother said, you asked what every word said and what it meant. So I was writing poetry all through my teens. And then at some point - this babysitter I had wrote to me, you know, like 10, 15 years ago and said, I babysat you. And I remember you said, how do you put poetry to music? And I thought to myself, why was I asking her?
R CASH: I had a better authority in my own house. But yeah, that's what happened, is that when I learned to play guitar, I started writing songs. And that was about age 18.
ZOMORODI: You tell a story in your TED Talk about some writing you did when you were younger - this phrase that you came up with that ended up revisiting you later in life and really influencing you.
R CASH: Yeah. I was in my mid-30s, and I was working on a song. And my mom at the same time across the country was going through my school papers and drawings and, you know, things from childhood of mine that she'd saved. And she sent me this whole box. And I was leafing through the box, and I came across this paper I had done in seventh grade on metaphors and similes.
And I looked at this paper, and I - it suddenly just washed over me. The thrill I had felt in doing that paper was the first time that I had ever been excited about anything that they had asked me to do in Catholic school. And there was this metaphor I had written. A lonely road is a bodyguard. This is a beautiful metaphor that I wrote at 12 years old. And it really moved me and struck me. And I just took that line and put it right in the song I was writing. The song's called "Sleeping In Paris."
ZOMORODI: Here's Rosanne Cash performing on the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
R CASH: (Singing) I'll send the angels to watch over you tonight, and you send them right back to me. A lonely road is a bodyguard if we really want it to be.
A lonely road is a bodyguard. What did it mean? I had even pasted a picture of this empty road next to the line. So my 12-year-old waved at me across the decades saying that who I was was who I would become. As painful as that was then and as it still can be painful now, I knew what she was telling me - that solitude can protect the seeds of creativity and that loneliness contains a priceless gift. If we can tolerate the initial discomfort and avoid the seduction of despair, we're all just radios hoping to pick up each other's signals. And some of those signals have a backbeat and a melody, and they're universal. And music can unlock a frozen memory that melts into the seeds of our creativity. And the reverse is also true. A memory can unlock a song that's waiting to be written.
ZOMORODI: When we come back, more with Rosanne Cash, including a recent revelation about her mother that adds a twist to her family's history. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCE WITH THE TIGER")
R CASH: (Singing) Of just how alone are all who live here.
ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and with me for the hour is Rosanne Cash.
R CASH: Hi, Manoush.
ZOMORODI: So we were talking about your dad, Johnny Cash. In the '60s, he moved your family from Tennessee to California. But as you said, it was kind of a tough childhood. As your father's success exploded, your parents' relationship really suffered. And I think most people know more about your dad's second wife, June Carter. But tell us about your mom, his first wife, Vivian, because she was a quiet but intense character.
R CASH: She wasn't very quiet at home.
R CASH: She was very intense. She's Sicilian, you know? She was very private and was not equipped to deal with my dad's sudden fame - explosive fame - and then his subsequent drug addiction. You know, in the '60s, it was like - he would have to drive 200 miles and do three shows a night, you know, on these tours. And at some point, someone gave a pill to him and said, take this. It'll keep you awake. Take this, and it'll help you sleep afterwards. And then that was it.
So my mom was not prepared for that. And then, you know, her - the template she had later on - when I went into, you know, became a songwriter and she realized that this was going to be my life path, she - her template for that was, oh, you get on drugs. You get divorced. Your family falls apart. You're never home, you know? And she was terrified that that's - was going to be my life.
ZOMORODI: Did you reassure her and say, no, I've learned from what not to do?
R CASH: No. I was not in the business of reassuring my mom anything at the age of 18.
R CASH: I just wanted to get away.
ZOMORODI: Just to step back for a second, in the beginning of your parents' relationship, they were madly in love.
R CASH: Absolutely. My dad was in the Air Force for three years. And my sisters and I have 1,000 letters they wrote to each other.
R CASH: Yeah.
ZOMORODI: That's crazy - a thousand. And is he saying, like, I'm going to be a big musical superstar?
R CASH: No, he was - it was mostly besotted teenage love. You know...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
J CASH: I do, Vivian. I love you very much. I love you more than anything in the world. We'll be together soon.
R CASH: My darling, my darling, my darling, and then, you know, he would throw in, I bought this record. I bought a cheap guitar. I have a little band with two of the other, you know, Air Force guys. And so there were these sprinklings of what was being seeded in him at that time.
ZOMORODI: And so there was this period where your parents were really happy.
R CASH: Oh, yeah - I mean, until I was about 6, I think. You know, it was great. They were in love. They were building a life together. Like you said, we moved to California when I was 3 from Memphis. And then things started falling apart.
ZOMORODI: I had read the story - I knew in the history books that in 1965 your father was arrested in Texas for drug possession. But I didn't know the story that your mom went down to get him out of jail and that there's a famous photo that was taken as they left the courthouse. And the public had, I mean, outrageous reaction to this photo. Can you explain what happened?
R CASH: Well, it was a, you know, a photo in the newspaper - not very pixelated, as it was back then. And it was dark. And my mother's features are Sicilian. And it appeared that she was African American. And there was this outcry that my father had married a Black woman. And the Ku Klux Klan started this campaign against my father to ban his records. And, you know, they excoriated him in the press. And it was this kind of - it got very intense and scary. And I didn't know what this was all about. But it was very frightening.
And he had to - he wrote this letter, you know, saying that my mother was Italian. And, you know, this went on for a while. And my mother was, like I said, so private. And she was extremely embarrassed by this attention - you know, something about her appearance or about her history or her race. And that was incredibly hard for her to process. It was too much attention and in the wrong way.
ZOMORODI: And there is actually another layer to this story, because your mother always believed that she came from an Italian American family, but you recently learned that there actually is some African heritage, too.
R CASH: It's so fascinating. I did "Finding Your Roots" a few years ago. And my mother's paternal side was, indeed, 100% Sicilian. They - you know, her grandparents immigrated from Sicily in the late 1900s and opened a store in San Antonio. All of this is well documented. And - but it turns out on her maternal side, whose history goes back deep in America, that in the 1840s there was a freed slave married to - actually, I don't know if they could get married, but they were living as man and wife in Alabama in the 1840s. They had nine children together. And one of those children is my grandmother's - my maternal grandmother's - direct ancestor.
ZOMORODI: Yeah. It's an amazing coda to this chapter in your family's history. Was it on your mind when you wrote the song "The Killing Fields"? You sing about your family's Southern roots and the history there of lynchings and racism in the South. It is haunting.
R CASH: Yeah. So writing "The Killing Fields" was a slow awakening. And I do not claim to be awakened about race and about the suffering of African Americans and about the history of slavery. But I am - I want to be awakened about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE KILLING FIELDS")
R CASH: (Singing) There was cotton on the killing fields. It blows down through the years. It sticks to me just like a burn, fills my eyes and ears. And all that came before me...
And I had already been thinking about race. My grandfather - Cash - had a deep thread of racism running through him - you know, Arkansas farmer. And he was not well educated. And I'm not making excuses for him. It was a - it's a very painful thing to acknowledge about him. But I had been involved with the restoration of my dad's boyhood home in Arkansas for the past 12 years, 14 years. And going to Arkansas a lot, I became more aware of the really dark, dark history of racism and violence in Arkansas.
At around the same time, I was doing a show at Dockery Farms in Mississippi, which is really one of the birthplaces of the blues. It was a cotton farm where some of the great blues artists - Howlin' Wolf and Charley Patton - had picked cotton in the day and played guitar and music and juke joints at night. So doing this show, there was an after-party, all white people at the after-party and this nearly 90-year-old Black man playing blues harp with a guitarist - a white guitarist - at the after-party while the white people were milling around. And I kept looking at him all night.
And I went over to him after the party to say thank you so much, you know? That was so beautiful. Really appreciate you coming and playing. And he said, oh, I just want to tell you that when I was out behind the plow in the fields, that we had a radio sitting on the porch. And whenever your daddy came on the radio in the '50s, I would run over to listen to him. And I started weeping. I was thinking about my racist grandfather across the river in Arkansas behind the same kind of plow. And I realized that everything I do musically, creatively - that in some ways there's a thread that goes back to that Black man behind the plow in Mississippi musically and that white man behind the plow in Arkansas. And I started thinking about the threads you have to break in your life - the ones you bind, the ones you break.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ZOMORODI: OK. So that reminds me of another story you tell in your TED Talk about your grandmother, Carrie Cash, and what it was like to be a woman in the South - the American South - a century or so ago.
R CASH: Yeah. So she had seven children - one who died when he was 14. But she gave birth at home with the assistance of a doctor who came by in a horse-and-buggy to check on her. One of her labors - she was in labor for three days - he came by on a horse-and-buggy to check on her every day, once a day and pulled two aspirin from his pocket to give her. It was the same pocket in which he kept his fishing worms.
R CASH: I know (laughter).
ZOMORODI: Here's Rosanne Cash again on the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
R CASH: I read once that every time an old woman dies, a library disappears. And before her library disappeared, I tuned in to my grandmother's signals and gleaned her tenacity, which I borrowed, and her long suffering and her life of constant work with seven children - six of whom made it to adulthood - in a house without electricity in the sweltering cotton fields. And I wrote these words about her.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SUNKEN LANDS")
R CASH: (Singing) Five cans of paint in the empty fields, and the dust reveals. And the children cry. The work never ends. There's not a single friend. Who will hold her hand in the sunken lands? And the mud and tears melt the cotton bolls. It's a heavy toll - oh, oh. His words are cruel, and they sting like fire, like the devil's choir - oh, oh. But who will hold her hand in the sunken lands? The river rises, and she sails away. But she could never stay - oh, oh. Now her work is done in the sunken lands. There's five empty cans.
ZOMORODI: You call that song "The Sunken Lands." But what are the Sunken Lands, Rosanne?
R CASH: The Sunken Lands - that's the area of Arkansas where my dad grew up, where they lived. And it's called that because there was an earthquake in 1811, and the land sank. And so it's still known as the Sunken Lands. And then, you know, I guess I do write quite a few songs about ancestry, history, family ties - which are broken, which are kept. You know, the - I wrote a song - John wrote the music - my husband John - and I wrote the lyrics to this song called "The Good Intent," which was the first ship that the first Cash ancestor came over. It was called "The Good Intent." And I was thinking, oh, that is such a great name. How could that not be in a song? So "The Sunken Lands" and "The Good Intent."
ZOMORODI: I love this idea of some advice that you got that was to sing to the - I believe it was - the 6% of the audience who are poets. Can you explain that one?
R CASH: So my friend John Stewart, who was a great songwriter and one of my mentors - he's gone now. But I had had a bad night, you know? Like I just couldn't connect with the audience. So you could see them - some not paying attention, you know, whatever was going on. I was just out of time and space. I was not present. And I called him all anxious and complaining, and he said, yeah, on those nights just sing to the 6% who are poets. But I've come to realize that even the other 94% need something. They've come for some reason. It's because they want something from music and from that shared experience. So I respect 100% of the audience, not just the six.
ZOMORODI: You'd written another song about this country's difficult history called "Crawl Into The Promised Land," which also connects the past and the present, like the civil rights movement and the Black Lives Matter movement. But I have to say, Rosanne, my favorite line is when you sing, deliver me from tweets and lies, and purify me in the sun.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAWL INTO THE PROMISED LAND")
R CASH: (Singing) purify me in the sun. The old man surely must have known to kick the lights and make his stand would give us strength back from the brink to crawl into the promised land.
ZOMORODI: OK. But come on, I have to ask. You are definitely on Twitter.
R CASH: (Laughter).
ZOMORODI: And you do not shy away from talking politics. So I don't know about this line. You are pretty outspoken on a lot of things. You are super outspoken on ending gun violence in America, for example. What is your philosophy on being a musician and an activist?
R CASH: My political beliefs are empathy, period. I think all principles, at least for me, derive from empathy. My activism against gun violence - that's an extension of mothering. It's so simple to me. We're the grown-ups in the room. We're required to protect children. That's, you know, full stop. That's it for me. Civil rights - the same. It just - if you can engender some kind of empathy - which I think music does, by the way - it reveals us to ourselves, you know? It gets us in touch with our feelings. And if there's no empathy there, then there is no humanity. So tweets and lies - tweets, I wasn't talking about myself, Manoush.
ZOMORODI: In a moment, more of my conversation with Rosanne Cash - how science, specifically quantum physics, has influenced her songwriting and her ideas about her own future. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Be back in a sec.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAWL INTO THE PROMISED LAND")
R CASH: (Singing) Lift your head and raise your hand and crawl into the promised land.
ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. My guest today is Rosanne Cash.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Tonight, a life surrounded by music - singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash.
ZOMORODI: In the beginning of her career, she quickly rose through the ranks of country music.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: She's been performing since she was 18. She had her first No. 1 country hit in her mid-20s. And in the decades since...
ZOMORODI: But then Rosanne switched tack and came up with her own unique sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And she was a pioneer. She was a rebel. There are so many different words that you could apply to her. But when all is said and done...
ZOMORODI: Over the years, she toured the world while also raising a family.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Aren't you out running around on the road all the time?
R CASH: Well, I mean, I go out, and I come back a little bit. Or I take them with me. I'm a full-time mother.
ZOMORODI: And all the while, she received numerous accolades.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This year she is going to be a resident at Carnegie Hall.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And for artists' rights, she was recently honored with the Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award. And, believe it or not...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The first woman to be awarded the Edward MacDowell Medal in Composition.
ZOMORODI: Hello again, Rosanne Cash.
R CASH: Hello, Manoush.
ZOMORODI: I want to talk about a song that you play in your TED Talk. It is called "Particle And Wave." And is it OK if we listen to it for just a moment?
R CASH: Sure. Of course.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
R CASH: (Singing, playing guitar) Light is particle and wave - our histories written large upon the page, the star in middle age. The love that fades to black, once revealed, won't be taken back. Light - nothing can escape. The ignorance we once forgave - no future if we don't decide to change. The things we cannot save, but it slows to shine upon your face. We owe everything, everything, everything to this rainbow of suffering. Light is particle and wave - refractions of this place, reflections of our grace. It reveals what we hold dear, and it's slow so I can hold you near.
ZOMORODI: Oh, Rosanne, this song is so beautiful.
R CASH: Thank you.
ZOMORODI: But it's also kind of a physics lesson, right? Like...
R CASH: Yeah.
ZOMORODI: Is it true that you were thinking about theoretical physics when you wrote it?
R CASH: Yes, as you do. You lay on the sofa and think about quantum physics. Quantum physics is like religion to me. And that is not to say I understand it at all. And that is why it's like religion to me. You know, if there is some higher power or some universal force, it gives me comfort to know that I don't understand it because then it is beyond my human understanding. But the language of quantum physics is so beautiful - refractions, you know, mutual attraction, dark matter, the event horizon. It's like a poet wrote this scientific discipline. So I was just thinking about the power of love and the speed of light and whether the power of love was greater than the speed of light. And that's when I wrote the song.
ZOMORODI: You write a lot about sort of going beyond time or linear time. I'm sort of wondering, you know, is it literally that space that you find when you are alone and writing a song and looking backwards and looking forwards and trying to figure out where you are, if anywhere, now?
R CASH: Well, it's funny. I just know I'm drawn to these paradoxes, that I have written songs that are definitely outside linear time. I call them postcards from the future. And I have written songs that are memories of my ancestors, and I don't know how those things happen. I know that they do happen because I'm devoted to the art and process of songwriting. And that's what's available to me. But I love that the past can be changed by perspective.
ZOMORODI: It's been nearly 20 years since your dad passed away. Like, does it feel like 20 years?
R CASH: Yes and no. It feels like he's still here, and it feels like he was never here. It feels like he belongs to the world as an iconic figure. And it feels like he was the guy who made ice cream on, you know, summer days in the backyard. And - but it's always been that way, you know? It's like there's personal dad, and there's a dad that the world owns. And at some point in my late 20s, I realized that I had to be more gracious about the fact that the world also owned my dad.
ZOMORODI: You've said that you know some people are attracted to you and your music because they're looking for a glimpse of your father in you. But you didn't deny them that. You could have changed your name. You never did. I mean, it sounds like you were conflicted about being Johnny Cash's daughter, but you reconciled yourself to it pretty early on in your career.
R CASH: I don't know about that. I think I could have been gracious earlier in my life, and I used to resent it. You know, I felt like a pane of glass that people were trying to look through to see my dad, and now I see it as part of my legacy. It's like, you know, your mom gives you a box of recipes. You don't go, I resent this.
R CASH: I mean, that's kind of, you know, reductive. Well, maybe it's not reductive. Maybe it's the same.
ZOMORODI: Well, what if it's the best cornbread recipe in the world...
R CASH: Absolutely.
ZOMORODI: ...And you owe it to share it with everyone?
R CASH: Absolutely. Potato salad - let's talk about that.
R CASH: You know, whether it's my DNA, which I think it is, whether it's my environment, which I think it is, whether it's his gift to me - if I don't take it, someone else will co-opt it and change the meaning. And that's what I realized, and that's why I wrote my memoir, actually.
ZOMORODI: Your memoir, which is called "Composed," we should say. Are you going to write another one, by the way? - because it's been - what? - 12 years since it came out.
R CASH: Yeah, a lot's happened. My husband says I should call the next volume "Decomposed."
ZOMORODI: (Laughter) That is dark.
R CASH: It's dark. Oh, Manoush, I love dark. I love dark. When I had brain surgery, I can't tell you the jokes I made to my friends about, you know, my brain - and my husband, too. It helped me get through it.
ZOMORODI: Well, where does that sense of humor come from? - because it is kind of - I don't know. It's not American. Like...
R CASH: No, it's not. It's Scottish. It's my Celtic thread. We're dark. We're melancholy.
R CASH: Oh, man. You know, I love those minor chords. I got the MacDowell Arts Medal in my speech. I said, I am an acolyte of the patron saint of minor chords. And it's true. I'm always drawn to melancholy, and so is my dad. So I have to think it's some kind of Scottish, you know, DNA.
ZOMORODI: Which might explain why you have written and you sing a lot about grappling with loneliness and its flipside - maybe we could say the more positive, creative side - which is solitude.
R CASH: Yeah. I don't necessarily think loneliness is always bad. And like you said, the creative acts that are inspired by solitude - that there are seeds of creativity in our solitude and in our memory and - you know, sometimes that slides straight into loneliness. And I think the reason that a lot of particularly touring musicians or artists in general are lonely - it's because that's where your work lies - in your own heart and mind and psyche. And that's a singular experience that requires solitude. And another layer of that is, as a touring musician, you know, the constant motion and not making your own bed and not being grounded to a single place and time and the rush of people and places that go by you. And that's one reason I have a very complicated relationship with touring - is I don't want to disappear into constant motion. I want to be grounded in my own home and not just physical home. But I like rhythms that are a little slower so I can actually take them in.
ZOMORODI: It's funny. I was thinking about how I have never been as lonely as I was in my 20s, but I have never wanted solitude so much as after I had kids.
R CASH: Isn't that the truth?
R CASH: They constantly take your pencil, don't they?
ZOMORODI: Yes. How did you write so many songs as the mother to four, then five kids?
R CASH: Because I am a songwriter. It's not something I do. It's - I'm a writer. It's what I am. At the same time, after having a baby, you know, there's that year and a half, two-year period where all of your creative energy goes into keeping that little thing alive, and there's not much time for anything else. I used to get scared and like, oh, my God, it's disappeared. I'm never going to create anything again. And then I realized that that's the rhythm of a life, you know? Yeah, you should give all your creative energy to that baby. And then it changes, and you have room and space for the solitude you're talking about.
ZOMORODI: OK. So we've talked a lot about the past. Can we talk about the future?
R CASH: Yes. Tell me.
ZOMORODI: You have - well...
R CASH: Tell me the future, Manoush.
ZOMORODI: You have five adult children.
R CASH: Yeah.
ZOMORODI: You have grandchildren.
R CASH: Yeah.
ZOMORODI: What's their relationship to music? What will they sing about you, Rosanne?
R CASH: Oh, what a question. I just - that takes my breath away to think about that. I am not Rosanne Cash with my kids. You know, I'm Mom and Grandmother. And I am very disciplined about that, about not infusing my motherhood, grandmotherhood with fame or this kind of public image of me. I try to keep it really grounded with them, and I hope I'm doing a good job with that. So the songs they would sing about me, I hope, would be as a real mother and a real grandmother.
ZOMORODI: It's interesting to think of the other young people in your life, a whole new generation, new listeners may find your music for completely different reasons. And I wonder if that frees you in some way.
R CASH: You know, I've been around long enough that I've, you know, carved my own space. And I've followed my own muse and I've refined my own skills. And I haven't tried to be a carbon copy. And I'm proud of all of those things. And my friend just sent me a text the other day. He said, hey, I went to see Phoebe Bridgers at, you know, some stadium. And she played "Seven Year Ache" as the walk-in music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEVEN YEAR ACHE")
R CASH: (Singing) Tell me you're trying to kill a seven-year ache. See what else your old heart can take.
I went, Phoebe Bridgers knows who I am? And my son said, of course she does Mom, you don't realize she's a fan of yours? I'm like, oh, my God, you know, this is - I never expected. The truth is, is that I taught myself to never expect. I kept my head down. I wanted to be a better songwriter and a better songwriter. And I wanted to be successful in my own mind by being satisfied with the work I had done.
ZOMORODI: You wrote once - and I wonder if you still feel this way - that every time you sit down to write a song, you're like, oh, what if this is it? What if I've reached my divine quota of good songwriting? And that anxiety is uncomfortable, but that it also fuels you.
R CASH: It never leaves. I'm writing something now, and I go, do I remember how to do this? And then suddenly, a flood of something will come...
R CASH: ...And I go, oh, yeah. No, I mean, I know I have some mastery over what I do now, and I teach it sometimes. You know, I'm guest teachers in university about songwriting. And I can't teach young people to write songs, but I can teach them to be disciplined about, you know, dismantling their rhyme schemes and not using themes like love and loss but actually to talk about the specifics, which is where the originality is. But I can't help them develop their own mastery. That takes time and devotion.
ZOMORODI: You're in your 60s now.
R CASH: Oh, my God.
ZOMORODI: It happens.
R CASH: It's shocking.
ZOMORODI: (Laughter) I mean, do you think you'll keep touring into your 70s?
R CASH: No. I want to wind down. I want to do other things. So right now, I'm writing the lyrics to a musical. I'm the lyricist. My husband, John, is the composer. We have a wonderful book writer. We're in production now. We're in choreography rehearsals. And we have rehearsals and eight performances this fall. And this is six years of work.
ZOMORODI: What's it about?
R CASH: It's "Norma Rae." I'm sure you remember the story. You know, it's really about a woman's transformation set in the framework of union organizing.
ZOMORODI: Very timely.
R CASH: So timely. And I love it. And I'm still excited. You know, I'm in my 60s. I am not jaded. I am still really curious about what's next and excited when I write something I think is good. And I want to see what's next. And I know that the wall of mortality is, you know, brick by brick. It's there. And it gives me a sense of urgency.
ZOMORODI: You mentioned, as you said in your talk, that some songs have been postcards from your future.
R CASH: Yeah.
ZOMORODI: Have you been getting any postcards recently?
R CASH: Yeah. I often don't know what I feel or think until I write about it. And there are themes that have repeated my entire life that I'm coming to the end of, that I have sorted through, that I don't have to do anymore. And there are other themes that are rising up about mortality and about settling scores in myself, about guarding against bitterness. I see that it's easy to become bitter or resentful as you get older if you don't achieve what you wanted to. And I've learned that bitterness gives you wrinkles, and I don't want any more. So - but, yeah, postcards from my future. They're very urgent. They're telegrams, not postcards.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ZOMORODI: Rosanne Cash, thank you so much.
R CASH: Thanks Manoush. I really enjoyed this. Thank you so much.
ZOMORODI: That's Rosanne Cash. You can see her full TED performance at ted.com. Thank you for listening to our show today. This episode was produced by Rommel Wood and it was edited by Rachel Faulkner and Katie Simon. Our production staff at NPR also includes Katie Monteleone, James Delahoussaye, Matthew Cloutier, Fiona Geiran and Katherine Sypher. Our audio engineer is Stu Rushfield. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelen, Michelle Quint, Sammy Case and Daniella Balarezo. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
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