The Best Rosanne Cash Song Ever
Dare you not to weep!
But who cares, really? It's the secrets Rosanne reveals about some of her best songs that count most to me, like the secret she reveals about "September When It Comes," and the story we learn about "Sleeping in Paris," that ominously, edgily seductive-sounding ballad, and its mysterious last line: "A lonely road is a bodyguard."
And the eulogies. The eulogies might be the high point. I dare you to read the three eulogies at the heart of this book without weeping: eulogies for her stepmother, June Carter; for her father, Johnny; and for her mother, Vivian; all of whom died in too short a period of time, barely letting her catch her breath and compose herself. But she does: They're killers, these eulogies.
They made me think: Hey, the eulogy is an underrated literary art form that has often brought out the best in our greatest poets. I cannot hear the phrase "Look homeward angel" (from Milton's "Lycidas") without feeling pierced to the heart. Same with Ben Jonson's "On My First Sonne," Donne's "Death be Not Proud," Bobby Kennedy quoting Aeschylus on the night Martin Luther King Jr. died. And of course, "Good night, sweet prince/ And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."
"Sing thee to thy rest." It reminded me of a remarkable Cash family moment I was witness to—or heard about at one remove. One afternoon in Nashville when I was doing a story about Willie Nelson, traveling around with him on his tour bus during the sad process (necessitated by an IRS catastrophe) of liquidating his museum and the personal artifacts within, Willie was joined by a sympathetic group of friends that included Carlene Carter, Rosanne's stepsister, and Cash family friend and country star Larry Gatlin. They told the story of how one of the Cash/Carter clan matriarchs had just died after a long illness and how much she wanted to leave the world of pain she was in, and how in her final moments of life the extended family had joined hands around her bedside and "sung her into heaven."
This kind of thing gets to me. The pure, heartfelt, til-death-do-us-part connectedness. It's probably why I've always been so moved by country music; it has an awareness of death that much pop music lacks.
Almost all the great country songs are eulogies: eulogies for the death of love. Or—like George Jones' immortal "He Stopped Loving Her Today"—for the death of a loved one. You can see this on Rosanne's most recent CD The List. You may have heard the story about how, growing up in L.A., Rosanne tended not to want to identify with her father's country music heritage, because it was so unhip—and how he knew it. One day, she found a handwritten list he'd made of 100 country songs she should listen to before she dismissed the form.
After his death, she made a point of listening to them and found herself knocked out by so many of them, she made an album of 12 and they're just about all eulogies.
The top of the list for me is her rendition of "Girl From the North Country," a song best known in its incarnation as a duet between Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan on Dylan's Nashville Skyline, a song so aching in the purity of its longing for a lost love that my Facebook friend Mikal Gilmore called it the embodiment of "American transcendentalism."
The song was one of three she performed live (the others were "Seven Year Ache," which she said was inspired by Rickie Lee's work—what a convergence!—and one of her more mystical late songs from Black Cadillac, "World Unseen") at a recent appearance at New York's 92nd Street Y. And yes it was transcendental.
Some of you may have heard that Rosanne underwent serious brain surgery in 2007. That night at the Y, it so happened, not by conscious design, that my companion was an extremely empathetic neuroscientist. She told me she was amazed at seeing in Rosanne no sign of any loss. On the contrary, rather, she was impressed by the kind of low-key but radiant spirituality Rosanne seemed to have and to evoke, perhaps from her brush with death, although I think it was always there.
It was then I realized that her entire book is a work about transcending: transcending grief, transcending the barrier between life and death with love that never dies. Composed is a book about regaining composure. Or the inability to regain composure. About how there are no rules, no bogus Elisabeth Kübler-Ross staging of grief here. That what makes it grievous is that it can't be staged; its ebb and flow can't be pigeonholed; it's not a uniform forced march from denial to acceptance. That it's a force greater than simple-minded categories.
One thing Composed does is confirm my belief that Rosanne's most beautiful, saddest song of all is "September When It Comes." Because Composed offers us a clue to the backstory of its enigmatic mystical opening verse:
There's a cross above the baby's bed
A savior in her dreams
But she was not delivered then
And the baby became me.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Photograph of Roseanne Cash by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images.