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Handling her grief

Rosanne Cash deals with the loss of her parents through her music.

January 21, 2006|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

THE first sound is a toddler huffing into a microphone, a sound familiar to any parent who has vainly tried to coax a child into speaking for posterity. The next sound is the child's father. His voice, a hickory rumble, is instantly recognizable as the late, great Johnny Cash.

"Rosanne, say 'C'mon.' "

That little snippet, culled from a home reel-to-reel recording, is the opening moment on "Black Cadillac," the new album from Rosanne Cash, and it gives way quickly to the gothic, simmering title track that, like the whole album, deals with grief, pain and the enduring human spirit. It's impossible not to think of her father's death in 2003 while listening to the CD -- and he would likely approve, considering he himself sang of staring into the twilight.

"I'm not the first person to make an album about death; I'm not even the first person in my family," says Rosanne Cash, the 50-year-old country singer whose career has been both acclaimed and occasional -- her new album, due later this month, follows a 2003 release, "Rules of Travel," that was her first studio album in a decade.

Cash is a curious country singer -- she was raised in L.A., lives in Manhattan and cares about Nashville only a bit more than it cares about her. She was the firstborn child of Johnny Cash, but her mother wasn't June Carter, it was Vivian Liberto Distin, now best known to the world as the Man in Black's first wife via "Walk the Line," a movie that is getting much Oscar discussion. The people at 20th Century Fox invited Rosanne Cash to see an early screening of the film in New York last summer. Liberto had died not six weeks earlier, and the portrayal of her in the film -- sometimes shrill, often helpless -- left her daughter raw and shaken by the time the credits rolled.

"There are four people in the world that movie was not made for: It was me and my three sisters," she said, referring to the children of Cash's first marriage. "I knew after that screening that I couldn't be around when the premiere came out. When it did, I went to Paris. They have very good red wine there. I went to shop, eat, drink, anything except be around that movie. I don't think anyone wants to see their childhood turned into a film. It can be a little strange."

The new CD is not an answer to the film ("I don't begrudge them making it and I don't resent it; it is what it is"), but it does offer an alternate view of her parent's lives. Cash's album is grim and spiritual and, for a singer who's made a career of songs that question, this one is more about statements than queries.

"She came in pretty focused, she knew what she wanted to say, and that rubbed off on me and the musicians," said Bill Bottrell, the music producer for much of the album.

Bottrell has worked with Elton John, Tom Petty, Shelby Lynne and others, but he said he's rarely seen an artist arrive at the microphone with more of a mission than Cash. "A lot of people these days are worried about making a song for radio or making a hit, but she was making an album for the music alone. It was pretty wonderful."

The album is steeped in family history, but its core theme is parents, loss and enduring love. "Pretty cheerful, huh?" Cash said with a laugh. One song, "Good Intent," traces the history of the Cash family, and it takes its name from the 17th century ship that ferried the singer's ancestors from Scotland. Another song, "I Was Watching You," tells an alternate tale of the romance between her father and mother.

"It was based on separate conversations I had with both of them about their honeymoon and the songs they listened to on the radio, so I had this image of those headlights in the night and Hank Williams singing and this love that was there," she said. "The song has a pretty big third-person perspective -- pre-birth, life, post-death. It took shape like a painting, but it began with me sitting at a piano thinking about those headlights."

The subject of her father's death is a raw one still, and the singer said she had wrestled with the way her grief had been shared by the public.

"I have gotten so many essays, paintings, screenplays, songs, poems -- all about my dad. They come in the mail, and it got to a point where I couldn't even look at it anymore, I couldn't deal with it. I felt like saying: 'You had him my whole life, the world owned him my whole life, I had to share him with you, but you don't get him now.' I'll be honest, I felt resentful some days."

She took a deep breath and then argued with herself. "It's wonderful that people loved him so much, he meant so much to the world. And that means a lot to me."

The elder Cash embraced his relationship with the world -- sharing his life with his fans for decades, in good times and bad, and instead of being above them, his great talent was singing eye-to-eye with the everyman.

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