Her father’s daughter, Cash waxes reflective

By Joan Anderman
Globe Correspondent / August 11, 2010

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Rock memoirs are a spotty lot, littered with bad writing and gratuitous dishing, and a reader’s expectations tend to follow suit. We slog through the wooden prose to get to the sex and drugs. We read between the ghostwritten lines hoping for a glimpse of our hero’s true heart. Or we go straight for the jugular: the photos.

Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash’s “Composed’’ includes only nine postage-stamp-size black-and-white photos of her and her family. The memoir is mostly a plainspoken, poetic collection of anecdotes, memories, and meditations that are arranged not so much chronologically but for maximum perspective.

Cash has had big hits and serious lows and a family life that’s ripe, to say the least. But the author is a craftswoman, and in her memoir, as in her songs, she places more emphasis on emotional resonance than on filling in the blanks.

Cash is the oldest child of the late country music icon Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian Liberto. She was born in 1955, a month before her father’s first single, “Cry, Cry, Cry,’’ was released on Sun Records. Before long the family traded East Memphis for Southern California and the disruptive glare of stardom, and over the next decade Cash’s family would be splintered by her dad’s constant traveling, drug addiction, and love affair with June Carter. It was a turbulent youth, which the author dutifully chronicles, noting that the 2005 film “Walk the Line’’ was “an egregious oversimplification of our family’s private pain, writ large and Hollywood-style.’’

But the facts of Cash’s extraordinary life do not a self-portrait make, and it’s the author’s weaving of history and experience with a deep sense of reflection, at once clear-eyed and nearly impressionistic, that makes “Composed’’ such a pleasure to read.

“If Magritte had painted my childhood, it would be a chaos of floating snakes, white oxfords, dead Chihuahuas, and pink hair rollers,’’ she writes. “Bolts of gold lamé and chiffon would be draped over everything, stained with coffee and burned with cigarettes, and garden hoes would be wielded by drunks with guitars. Glass jars full of spiders and amphetamines would line the walls behind the sliding mirrored doors.’’

The picture is hardly complete. But the choices that Cash — who has published fiction and essays in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere — made about which moments to plumb and what to leave untouched are themselves revealing. Her marriage to and divorce from country artist Rodney Crowell are not given much ink, but she describes at length the outfits she wore to a string of funerals.

“For Dad’s funeral I chose a black knee-length Armani skirt and a Philippe Adec jacket with sweet black-on-black appliqué flowers on one shoulder,’’ she writes. “I wore black stockings and the same Prada satin pumps, which still had bits of dried mud on them from June’s funeral four months before. I fainted at the funeral home.’’

It’s not necessarily the widescreen images, but the tiny details, Cash reminds us, that we carry through our lives.

As the title suggests, her path so far has been defined in large measure by the challenge of cobbling a personal and creative identity in the context of the Cash cosmos. She searched for herself at a low-level record label job in London and in Method acting classes in Los Angeles, fled to Munich to try her hand making records, topped the charts and fell from grace, struggled to juggle career and motherhood to five children, and agonized, always, over her voice. She’s found it.

Joan Anderman wrote about music and the arts for the Boston Globe from 1998-2010.

COMPOSED By Rosanne Cash

Viking, 244 pp., $26.95