Rosanne Cash is both saddled and gifted with a musical heritage that would make other performers either salivate in envy or hide in their basement in fear. Cash’s dad – country legend Johnny Cash – is a looming figure in both his daughter’s professional and personal worlds. Like Natalie Cole, Liza Minnelli, and Jacob Dylan, Cash managed to transcend her father’s shadow, and forged an interesting career in her own right as a major figure in country music. Like her father, Cash represented a new voice in country music – an urbane, intellectual point of view that wasn’t reared in poverty or rural America – she was more K.T. Oslin than Dolly Parton. After years of being a reliable hitmaker in the 1980s, Cash has become a revered figure in adult country music, honored as much for her own estimable contribution, as for her impressive lineage. As expected, her life has its share of interesting anecdotes, and as proven with her prodigious song writing talent, Cash has a knack with writing. With Composed: A Memoir, Cash proves to be as strong an author as she is a songwriter.
First a caveat: those hoping for a fun, juicy piece of trash will be disappointed Aside from some pointed, critical comments on the Hollywood film of Johnny Cash, Walk the Line, this book is wonderfully free of bitchiness or cattiness. Instead, Composed is a sterling collection of essays that chronicle the struggle of a talented young woman who is trying to make sense of grief, parenthood, music, and childhood. Growing up as Johnny Cash’s daughter couldn’t have been easy – when your dad’s a country music legend and hero, there are lots of expectations piled on your shoulders. Cash’s music career wasn’t automatic – it came after dabbling with acting (she studied with Method guru Lee Strasburg in Los Angeles before deciding she didn’t want to be an actress). It’s interesting that Cash didn’t travel to Nashville or Memphis to birth her country music career. Instead, she traveled to Germany, where she put together a debut album and middling success.
Cash’s relationship to her famous dad is an interesting blend of pride, love, and some frustration. She writes of an exacting and disciplined man who has his standards and expects respect and sometimes obedience. She also paints a picture of a father who is supportive of his daughter’s career (he had a hand in Cash’s record contract). An poignant thing happens towards the end of the book when Cash shares her time with her father when ill health slowly took his life away. The shared love between the two shines through as Cash writes about the last few times she spent with her father.
Death and tragedy is a major theme in Cash’s book because she’s been dealt with a lot – not only her father’s death, but the deaths of her mother, stepmother (June Carter Cash), stepsister, friends. As a converted New Yorker she also shares her 9/11 story, breaking a rule she writes about that stipulates that New Yorkers don’t tell 9/11 stories. She brilliantly captures the panicked mood of that day as she and her children try to make their way home after the Twin Towers are hit. As with the rest of the book, she doesn’t indulge in mawkishness or melodrama – she doesn’t make her role in the tragedy more than it is – and she maintains a restraint and elegance.
But aside from all the sadness, there are also interesting notes about Cash’s career. She’s frank about her recording career – appropriately reverential to the incredible music that fans love, but careful not to puff herself out too much, without falling into false modesty. Because she came to music rather late, she writes of her career as a learning process – instead of just being a singer, she discovers she’s a singer – a startling epiphany. She goes into some detail to describe her writing process – especially when she’s covering the music she made when she was dealing with her grief.
Celebrity autobiographies are often plagued by their authors’ literary limits. Cash has a leg up on her colleagues because she’s a gifted writer independent of her fame (or her dad’s fame). She displays the kind of talent that would imply that even if she wasn’t famous, she’d still have a great chance at being published. And while it helps to be a Rosanne Cash (or Johnny Cash) fan when reading Composed, it’s not obligatory. Cash’s story of growth and adaptation to life changes is one that anyone can read.