Rosanne Cash reveals the message from her dad that she's always held on to
The singer tells Tony Clayton-Lea how reluctantly playing tribute concerts finally helped her escape the angst she felt over her famous father Johnny and the words that he wrote to her as a child that she has never forgotten
Rosanne Cash declares: "I'm 63 years of age, and it's time to stop - it's not graceful anymore." But she isn't talking about walking away from music. With a very fine new album, She Remembers Everything, out soon, there is no fear of her giving up what she has been successful at for over 40 years. The elegant, well-spoken songwriter and singer is talking about drawing a line under what she has viewed for some time as the distance she has wilfully put between herself and her father, the bona fide country music legend that was Johnny Cash.
Her father, she says with no small understatement, "cast a big shadow", but something took place earlier this year that finally oiled the gear-grinding relationship between father and daughter.
Several months ago, for the second of her two-year tenure as resident artistic director at San Francisco Jazz, Rosanne and another of America's songwriting treasures, Ry Cooder, teamed up for a four-night run of concerts that focused entirely on Johnny Cash songs.
"I could not have imagined doing that show even five years ago," she admits, "and while it wasn't my idea, I had always wanted to work with Ry, who I admire greatly.
"So I rang him up, asked him what he would be into doing, and he said that the only show to do is what he called 'the Johnny show'.
"I told him that was the exact kind of show I had avoided all of my life. I rebelled against the idea, but after a day or so thinking about it, I was like, to hell with it, why not?"
Johnny Cash songs such as Hey Porter, The Long Black Veil, Ring of Fire and I Walk the Line were performed in a reimagined way - "Ring of Fire sounded like the Grateful Dead," recalls Rosanne, "I Walk the Line was swampy, and so on."
The shows were, she says with traces of relief and regret, a way for her to simultaneously break a barrier and unite.
"You get caught up with the myths and so on, and doing the music the way me and Ry did, the dissembling of songs, reconnected us. It was such a gift. It released me from all of that angst about me and my dad."
The eldest daughter of Cash and his first wife (Vivian Liberto), Rosanne began her life in music as part of her father's on-the-road entourage, first as a wardrobe assistant, and then a background singer.
Her studio recording debut was on her father's 1974 album, The Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me, on which she sang lead vocal on a version of Kris Kristofferson's Broken Freedom Song.
Her first professionally recorded work as a composer (Love Has Lost Again) appeared two years later on her father's album, One Piece at a Time.
From the late Seventies onwards, Rosanne has forged a hugely successful career garlanded with nominations and awards (Academy of Country Music, Americana Music Honours, Country Music Association, and Grammy, for which she has been nominated 15 times across the genre categories of country, folk, pop and American roots), but which has often felt unreasonably minimised by the legacy of her father's work.
She places the legacy and history issues in the "it is what it is" department, but is irritated (justifiably) by media commentary that regularly undermines her notable achievements.
"I just kept pushing and pushing with that," she says, shaking her head in a mild display of frustration.
"I've been doing this for over 40 years, and still people review gigs that say things like 'she's finally coming into her own'. I have lifetime achievement awards! What are they talking about?"
While there's a ripple of self-effacing laughter at this, you can sense it rankles.
We talk about how things have changed for her specifically with regards to her gradual acceptance of the status of her father within popular culture.
Every teenager or young adult, she observes, wants to get away from their parents.
"As you get more confident, you start to accept your parents more, don't you?
"I pushed away for a long time - probably longer than necessary. Not from my dad as a person, but knowing that I had to figure things out on my own, to know what kind of writer I am, or wanted to be. It would have been worse if I'd been a son."
Despite Rosanne's singularity as an artist, one of the traits she indisputably shares with her late father is an honesty that runs through her songwriting like blood through veins.
This is surely one of the reasons why she is the next recipient of the Spirit of Americana Freedom of Speech Award (which will be presented to her on September 12 at the 17th annual Americana Honours & Awards event in Nashville, Tennessee).
The irony of receiving such an award almost 45 years after she sang Kristofferson's Broken Freedom Song is not lost on her.
Artists, she says, have a responsibility to express the truth the way they see it - without causing undue offence, she adds significantly.
"If you want a democracy, then you have to participate, you can't be on the sidelines. Artists are meant to stir up your feelings, to uncover personal and universal truths. That's part of the job, right?"
Indeed it is, and it is what she has been doing brilliantly since her early 20s, even if her primary influence was, perhaps unselfconsciously, towering over her.
We talk again about the conflict of teenagers and young adults wanting to distance themselves from their parents. Was that the same for her?
She thinks for a few seconds before answering. "I don't think I ever dismissed what he did." Another few seconds pass.
"I remember when I was about 12 years of age, I wrote a letter to him.
"I said that I had things inside me I wanted to do. I was opening up, telling him I wanted to do important things, to write, and so on.
"He wrote me back, and said, 'I see that you see as I see.' I always held on to that."
A family affair
Johnny Cash (father)
Despite being one of country music's most commercially successful artists, Johnny Cash relentlessly battled against the genre's conservative nature. A true icon of popular music.
June Carter Cash (step-mother)
The second wife of Johnny Cash was very much a songwriter in her own right. One of her best-known songs, Ring of Fire, became one of the most familiar in country music. (Johnny Cash's first wife, Vivian Liberto, disputed that the song had been written by Carter.)
Carlene Carter (Step sister)
June Carter's daughter from a previous marriage has had a successful career in music from the late Seventies. Her most recent songwriting/singing work is her 2017 album with John Mellencamp, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies.
John Carter Cash (half-brother)
The only child of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, singer-songwriter John is also a Grammy-winning record producer and is the custodian of the Cash family legacy.