The Spectator

The Best Rosanne Cash Song Ever

Dare you not to weep!

Rosanne Cash

What is it about Rosanne Cash? Where does she get her uncanny power to cast a spell on those of us susceptible? Has she dabbled in witchcraft? Sure, she’s Johnny Cash’s daughter, and she has inherited his genius for heartbreak, but she transcends the country music stereotype. (I say this without condescension because I like the country music stereotype. My deepest unfulfilled ambition is to write a great—even not-so-great—country song that would bring a tear to the eye of somebody in a dive somewhere in Nashville.)

But a woman I know recently described Rosanne Cash as “really more a New York intellectual” than a country music person, meaning it as a compliment, and referring to the fact that she’s spent only seven years living in Nashville and its environs, having grown up mainly on the West Coast and lived for two decades now in the swamp and bayou country of Greenwich Village. So her songs are idiosyncratically emotional, not “regional” unless you’re talking, as I guess I am, about the region of the heart.

Sometimes when I write about the singer-songwriter musical goddesses I love, heart-rending talents like Rosanne Cash, Rickie Lee Jones, Joni Mitchell, and the like, women who have the power to transfix and mesmerize you with the sorrow in their songs, I feel like Paris. Not Paris the city, but Paris the mythic son of Troy’s king who is compelled to judge a beauty contest between the three foremost—and most dangerous—goddesses on Olympus: Hera, the queen of the gods; Athena, the goddess of wisdom; and Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

Being a guy and all, Paris goes for love. Aphrodite offers him Helen of Troy as a reward for his choosing her, and a tragic reward it is, since he has to steal Helen away from the Greek King Menelaus, her husband, and all hell (all Helen?) breaks loose in the ensuing Trojan war. (There’s a valuable new book on The Iliad by Caroline Alexander called The War That Killed Achilles, which merits your attention if you care about the foundational work of Western literature and haven’t looked into its portrait of the bloody, futile absurdity of war since college. It’s worth reading in tandem with the new Woodward book, whose overwhelming importance—if you forget the inside baseball that everyone is distracted by—is that there’s no rationale whatsoever for the killing in Afghanistan.)

OK, the analogy to the judgment of Paris is a bit far-fetched, but every time I hear one of the singers I adore, musicians who have captivated my emotional being for weeks at a time with songs like Rickie Lee’s “Beat Angels” or Joni’s “Amelia” or Emmylou’s “Boulder to Birmingham,” I feel compelled to pronounce judgment, to compare the one in question to the other singer-songwriter goddesses who have captured my heart—award her the golden apple that Paris proffered to Aphrodite.

But I’ve written about Rosanne most often, and she’s the only one I’ve ever written a marriage proposal to (in the form of a quixotic, tongue-in-cheek column). I treasure her good-natured (published) reply: “I plan on hanging Ron Rosenbaum’s ‘marriage proposal’ in a prominent place. Should my husband take me for granted, he will be reminded that I am not without options.” Of course she was married then and she’s still happily married now, according to her new memoir Composed.

Even more gratifying to a writer, in that same note, she said that my description of the substratum of sorrow beneath her words—”the wail beneath the world” is the way I put it—was a phrase worthy of a songwriter. (God, I’m so easily manipulated.)

Still, reading Composed, and its revelations about what may be Rosanne’s most beautiful sad song—”September When It Comes,” a duet with her dying father—compels me once again to make judgments and once again to award her the prize, with apologies to the other three goddesses (and Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, too). The new memoir takes Rosanne into new territory as a writer and reveals something about the source of the wail beneath her words.

Composed is one of the rare memoirs that doesn’t participate in the degradation/redemption narrative so common to the genre; it really is composed, written without loud clamor or false glamour. It has composure. One thing I find remarkable about it is that Rosanne seems unaware of or unwilling to write about the power that her songs have over people. Instead it’s all about her struggle to write them and the emotional matrix from which they emerged. It’s an act of humility that is remarkable to me: She must know!

So composure, yes, but a hard-won composure buffeted by grief. The book is really an epic saga of grief, written without a hint of the maudlin or mawkish, with a songwriter’s terse, reticent, offhand grace, so a single word or phrase can speak volumes and excavate depths.

Somehow I feel the memoir hasn’t yet gotten the attention it deserves because people were looking for sex, drugs, and dirty laundry. Even my friend Betsy, who might deserve to be called the World’s Second-Greatest Rosanne Cash fan (she once exclaimed to me during a discussion of “Seven Year Ache,” “I am Rosanne Cash!,” a distinction I could not claim). Still, Betsy had wanted the book to include more about Rosanne’s divorce from her first husband, the brilliant singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, author of perhaps the greatest modern country song I know (if I had to choose one): “Til I Gain Control Again.”

But this is no tell-all. On one page she’s married in Nashville; next page she’s moving to New York, divorced.

But who cares, really? It’s the secrets Rosanne reveals about some of her best songs that count most to me, like the secret she reveals about “September When It Comes,” and the story we learn about “Sleeping in Paris,” that ominously, edgily seductive-sounding ballad, and its mysterious last line: “A lonely road is a bodyguard.”

And the eulogies. The eulogies might be the high point. I dare you to read the three eulogies at the heart of this book without weeping: eulogies for her stepmother, June Carter; for her father, Johnny; and for her mother, Vivian; all of whom died in too short a period of time, barely letting her catch her breath and compose herself. But she does: They’re killers, these eulogies.

They made me think: Hey, the eulogy is an underrated literary art form that has often brought out the best in our greatest poets. I cannot hear the phrase “Look homeward angel” (from Milton’s “Lycidas”) without feeling pierced to the heart. Same with Ben Jonson’s “On My First Sonne,” Donne’s “Death be Not Proud,” Bobby Kennedy quoting Aeschylus on the night Martin Luther King Jr. died. And of course, “Good night, sweet prince/ And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

“Sing thee to thy rest.” It reminded me of a remarkable Cash family moment I was witness to—or heard about at one remove. One afternoon in Nashville when I was doing a story about Willie Nelson, traveling around with him on his tour bus during the sad process (necessitated by an IRS catastrophe) of liquidating his museum and the personal artifacts within, Willie was joined by a sympathetic group of friends that included Carlene Carter, Rosanne’s stepsister, and Cash family friend and country star Larry Gatlin. They told the story of how one of the Cash/Carter clan matriarchs had just died after a long illness and how much she wanted to leave the world of pain she was in, and how in her final moments of life the extended family had joined hands around her bedside and “sung her into heaven.”

This kind of thing gets to me. The pure, heartfelt, til-death-do-us-part connectedness. It’s probably why I’ve always been so moved by country music; it has an awareness of death that much pop music lacks.

Almost all the great country songs are eulogies: eulogies for the death of love. Or—like George Jones’ immortal “He Stopped Loving Her Today”—for the death of a loved one. You can see this on Rosanne’s most recent CD The List. You may have heard the story about how, growing up in L.A., Rosanne tended not to want to identify with her father’s country music heritage, because it was so unhip—and how he knew it. One day, she found a handwritten list he’d made of 100 country songs she should listen to before she dismissed the form.

After his death, she made a point of listening to them and found herself knocked out by so many of them, she made an album of 12 and they’re just about all eulogies.

The top of the list for me is her rendition of “Girl From the North Country,” a song best known in its incarnation as a duet between Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan on Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, a song so aching in the purity of its longing for a lost love that my Facebook friend Mikal Gilmore called it the embodiment of “American transcendentalism.”

The song was one of three she performed live (the others were “Seven Year Ache,” which she said was inspired by Rickie Lee’s work—what a convergence!—and one of her more mystical late songs from Black Cadillac, “World Unseen”) at a recent appearance at New York’s 92nd Street Y. And yes it was transcendental.

 Some of you may have heard that Rosanne underwent serious brain surgery in 2007. That night at the Y, it so happened, not by conscious design, that my companion was an extremely empathetic neuroscientist. She told me she was amazed at seeing in Rosanne no sign of any loss. On the contrary, rather, she was impressed by the kind of low-key but radiant spirituality Rosanne seemed to have and to evoke, perhaps from  her brush with death, although I think it was always there.

It was then I realized that her entire book is a work about transcending: transcending grief, transcending the barrier between life and death with love that never dies. Composed is a book about regaining composure. Or the inability to regain composure. About how there are no rules, no bogus Elisabeth Kübler-Ross staging of grief here. That what makes it grievous is that it can’t be staged; its ebb and flow can’t be pigeonholed; it’s not a uniform forced march from denial to acceptance. That it’s a force greater than simple-minded categories.

One thing Composed does is confirm my belief that Rosanne’s most beautiful, saddest song of all is “September When It Comes.” Because Composed offers us a clue to the backstory of its enigmatic mystical opening verse:

There’s a cross above the baby’s bed
A savior in her dreams
But she was not delivered then
And the baby became me.

That baby became me. … Reminds me of the heartbreaking Dylan line in “If You See Her, Say Hello” from Blood on the Tracks: “She still lives inside of me/ We’ve never been apart.” It seems to me from the way she writes about the profound effect of a 1995 miscarriage in her memoir, and from the way she spoke about it candidly at the 92nd St. Y event, that it was a turning point in her life. She doesn’t say so explicitly, but it’s hard to hear that line now about a room prepared for a baby who “was not delivered” without thinking this is what she is referring to.

That grief—and her recovery from it—is, I think, at the center of the book. It’s almost as if that verse was the eulogy for the child not delivered.

It’s the kind of grief men can suffer, but never as much. I know this because my mother suffered two still-births and, and though she never spoke about it to me, I believe the deep streak of sadness that was bequeathed to me by those losses is what has drawn me to this music of loss. That’s my new theory anyway.

Look at that: I’ve never written anything so emotional. Rosanne Cash will do that to you.

And then there’s the verse her father sings in their “September When It Comes” duet when it’s clear he’s singing about his own coming death:

I plan to crawl outside these walls
Close my eyes and see
Fall into the heart and arms
Of those who wait for me.

Note the use of the rhetorical device “fall into the heart and arms.” It reminded me of Shakespearean hendiadys, * the signature figure of speech of Hamlet, a device that some have argued expresses in its doubling the divided soul of Hamlet himself. “Heart and arms” recalled to me another line from Hamlet, “the book and volume of my soul.” Well, that’s how I remembered it. Only my memory was at fault. In the text it’s “book and volume of my brain.” But in “heart and arms” we hear the book and volume of the soul as well.

 The girl can write. Listen to “September When It Comes.” Read those eulogies. Not that Composed is entirely without humor, even about death. She talks about one of the ambitious funeral directors she deals with approaching her with a new innovation the industry has come up with. If she agrees to be cremated, the eager mortuary man says excitedly, they can compress the carbon ash or her remains into a diamond. (I’m not making this up; anyway that’s what she says.)

She laughs it off. I know she wouldn’t say it, but she’s already one of life’s gems.

Correction, Oct. 13, 2010: This article initially misspelled the name of a rhetorical device. It’s hendiadys, not hendyiasis. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

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