Composed: A Memoir
By Rosanne Cash
Penguin; 256 pp.

Grammy-winning recording artist Rosanne Cash appeared at Meredith College on Aug. 13 to promote her new memoir, Composed. She also responded to an e-mailed set of questions from Indy contributor David Klein. In the following interview, she discusses her feelings about the film Walk the Line, her early musical influences and having Morrissey as an in-law.

INDEPENDENT: In your book you describe Walk the Line [the 2005 biopic about Johnny Cash] as an egregious oversimplification of your family’s private pain. What would a nuanced, non-clichéd movie version of your father’s life be like? A little less Hollywood story arc, a bit more John Cassavetes?

ROSANNE CASH: I think it’s very hard to show the life of a great artist on film, in two hours, because so much of that life is interior. The film focused solely on my dad’s addiction and my parents’ divorce and his relationship with June, but what was missing was the entire context: the making of a great artist and the complex humanity. I really enjoyed Pollock and thought Ed Harris captured some of those things well. I also enjoyed Ray, but I bet his kids didn’t.

You mention four key records from the formative summer of ’76 you spent in London, works by Bob Dylan, Janis Ian, duets by Tammy Wynette and David Houston, and James Taylor. These records spoke to you and put you in touch with what you were all about at the time: “music, men, food, antiques, excitement, and being pretty.” Could you speak in more detail about things you took from these records?

Janis Ian’s existential loneliness and her sense of being “other,” which I have certainly experienced and was acutely aware of in 1976. In Desire, the depth of songwriting by Dylan and my longing to be that good. Also, I was really mesmerized by the song “Hurricane”the social consciousness, compassion and succinct storytelling inside that great melody. [Taylor’s] Gorilla held romance and the promise of romance, and more delicate melodiesit appealed to my girly nature. The duet record was just pure great vocals and classic songs. It required the least thought. I could put it on as background, unlike the other three records.

On a related note, in today’s musical climate, whether it’s processed kiddie pop or the kind of generic country stuff you have no love for, what’s a kid going to listen to in order to find the kind of transcendence you found in ’76? Does a kid even stand a chance without a parent with a good record collection?

Haaagood question. I like the musical dialogue with my kids. I find great stuff from them, and I know they get good stuff from me and my husband. My son turned me on to Green Day, who I adore, and some Black Eyed Peas and Maino and a few other hip-hop artists. Some of the lyrics are astounding. Maino’s “All The Above” brought me to tears. I can’t expect my son to get Neil Young or Dylan the way I did (although, interestingly, my daughters do get it), but he has his own musical climate he loves and some of it is pretty great. My daughter Chelsea has very ecumenical tastesshe listens to everyone from Louis Prima to the Sex Pistols. That’s inspiring.

You grew up in a musical family, learned how to play guitar with the help of people like Carl Perkins, were schooled in the essential songs by your father, and experienced real success early on in your recording career. Yet even after winning a Grammy in 1985, you still seemed to be riddled with a good measure of self-doubt. Why was it so hard for you to realize you really were that good? When you were growing up, did your mother, or other people around you, tell you that you had talent?

No one told me I had talent. No one even recognized who I was until I was about 12, when I wrote my dad a letter full of longing for something transcendent and artistic desire, and he responded with shock and delight that I was a “kindred soul.” I kept myself pretty closeted through childhood. But even so, I think it’s just the nature of the beast that artists are plagued by self-doubt. Every one I know has to juggle ambition, confidence and faith in one’s ability with crippling doubt.

An article in Rolling Stone a few years back featured the children of prominent musical legends, from James Taylor to Simon & Garfunkel and Billy Joel, many of whom were pursuing musical careers. But the odds aren’t so good for the offspring of musical legends. Folks like Jakob Dylan and Jeff Buckley and, of course, you are the exceptions, while the brief success and subsequent decline into obscurity of, say, Julian Lennon seems the more likely outcome. Besides good genes, what do you think it takes for exceptional talent to manifest itself and sustain itself?

Hard work. Keeping one’s head down and showing up again and again and again through the most frustrating and debilitating insultspeople coming up to you after a show and never mentioning your performance but launching into extended rhapsodies of how great your dad was, their brief encounter with him, which records they own, how their parents played his music all the time, how much they miss him and [how they] cried when he died (can you imagine saying that to a child of that person, still in mourning? It happened so many times) and then just before they walk off, toss off something like “Oh, you’re pretty good too.” If I had a dollar…

But I had a steely resolve, and I loved what I did so much, and I learned how to let most of it roll off my back. Once in awhile it still gets to me. On a morning radio drive-time show recently, the guy went on and on about my dad’s last few months of life and didn’t I think he wasn’t going to make it … I hung up and burst into tears. Emotional rape, basically. So you see an inkling of the challenges and why it would be easy for a sensitive person to retreat or disintegrate. I’m lucky in that I wasn’t a boyit would have been worseand that I’m very resilient and have a powerful work ethic.

I was intrigued to learn that last year, your daughter Caitlin ended up marrying Morrissey’s nephew. Strange bedfellows indeed. Do you like The Smiths? Do you have a favorite Smiths song? Would you consider singing a duet with him in the right circumstances?

I am mortified to say I don’t really know The Smiths’ music but will remedy that shortly.