Edward W Batchelder

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Black Cadillac
Rosanne Cash

cover of Black Cadillac

Rosanne Cash was born to Johnny and Vivian Cash in May, 1955, the same month that Sun Records released “Cry, Cry, Cry.” She was their firstborn child; the song was his first commercially released single. If those two events pointed down different roads, then the elder Cash clearly chose the latter one, and for much of her childhood he was on the road so constantly that there were times when she knew his location only from the newspapers.

“You were always rollin’,” Rosanne writes in the title song to Black Cadillac, “But those wheels burnt up your life.”

By the time she was twelve, her parents had divorced and the mother and children had moved to the small California town where Rosanne grew up. She saw her father only occasionally, for concerts and summers at his house on the lake outside Nashville. “At the heart of real country music,” she has written in an essay called “Songs My Daddy Sang Me,” “lies family,” yet for years those two seemed to her as opposed as her parents’ lives. She may have been the inheritor of a rich tradition of American music, but she insists that “tradition was anathema to me.” Her dreams of rebellion focused on taking “a straight, non-musical path.”

“Language and poetry have always been a major part of my life,” she acknowledges, “so it was in the cards that I would be a writer of some sort. Whether I’d be a performer was another question. Performance was where my father was his largest self, but it didn’t come naturally to me.”

The change came with a graduation present of going on tour with Johnny and June Carter Cash. Beyond a gift, it was a second education. Her father introduced her to what he called the “100 Essential Country Songs,” and she learned them on guitar from Carl Perkins and Mother Maybelle Carter. Grudgingly, she came to accept that while her destiny was different from her father’s, it might not be diametrically opposed. “There are some things that can’t be denied,” she says, “and DNA is one of them.”

photo of Rosanne and Johnnt Cash in 1977

More than that, she “came to realize how a shared passion forges deep bonds between people, defining a family more deeply than blood connection alone can do. I discovered a passion . . . that led me into my life as a writer and a singer—into my family’s vocation.”

Black Cadillac, written during a span of two years as she watched the deaths of June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash, and her own mother, Vivian Liberto Cash Distin, is laced through with family—running from the distant Scottish ancestor who sailed here on The Good Intent to Cash’s relationship with her own children. It’s also shot through with loss, a subject just as close to the heart of country music as family is—loss of loved ones, loss of faith, and the loss of direction that threatens when the ones who have helped to guide us are gone.

The music is not just a testament to what Cash has lost, though. It is also about what she has kept, about what remains when the tidal wave of loss recedes. It’s about memories, longings, and finding a place in a family that stretches both behind her and before her.

Cash’s talent as a singer and a songwriter has always been to take the rich tradition she was handed on that bus and to make it her own. As personal as the emotions on Black Cadillac are, they tap into what she calls “a very American lineage” of music, and it’s her ability to negotiate that balance that gives the songs their vibrancy. “You don’t lose your discipline because you’re overwhelmed by feeling,” Cash insists, and she’s grounded the songs in specifics that anchor them against self-pity, that tie them to what her husband called the “geography and artifacts” of everyday life.

There’s the black Cadillacs her mother bought new every year, and that her father wrecked, “a dozen in a row”; the job her father held as a radio operator in the military; the fire he accidentally set that she secretly hoped would destroy her hometown; the Hank Williams songs she imagines her parents listened to on their honeymoon. There’s the devastation of New Orleans, finding its mirror in her personal sorrow when she writes that she and the city “both are sinkin’ fast.” Even the roses she laid on her father’s grave find their way into song.

Tethered to these intimate experiences, the songs strain upward like dark balloons, caught between her terrestrial suffering and spiritual longing.

“Modern country music,” she wrote in her essay, “is shiny and rich and rather shallow. . . . The dead have all but disappeared.” Perhaps her greatest contribution to the family legacy is that she makes them reappear in Black Cadillac.

© Edward W Batchelder
(from InConcert)

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