The best Rosanne Cash song ever.

Scrutinizing culture.
Oct. 13 2010 12:29 PM

The Best Rosanne Cash Song Ever

Dare you not to weep!

Rosanne Cash. Click image to expand.
Rosanne Cash

What is it about Rosanne Cash? Where does she get her uncanny power to cast a spell on those of us susceptible? Has she dabbled in witchcraft? Sure, she's Johnny Cash's daughter, and she has inherited his genius for heartbreak, but she transcends the country music stereotype. (I say this without condescension because I like the country music stereotype. My deepest unfulfilled ambition is to write a great—even not-so-great—country song that would bring a tear to the eye of somebody in a dive somewhere in Nashville.)

But a woman I know recently described Rosanne Cash as "really more a New York intellectual" than a country music person, meaning it as a compliment, and referring to the fact that she's spent only seven years living in Nashville and its environs, having grown up mainly on the West Coast and lived for two decades now in the swamp and bayou country of Greenwich Village. So her songs are idiosyncratically emotional, not "regional" unless you're talking, as I guess I am, about the region of the heart.

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Sometimes when I write about the singer-songwriter musical goddesses I love, heart-rending talents like Rosanne Cash, Rickie Lee Jones, Joni Mitchell, and the like, women who have the power to transfix and mesmerize you with the sorrow in their songs, I feel like Paris. Not Paris the city, but Paris the mythic son of Troy's king who is compelled to judge a beauty contest between the three foremost—and most dangerous—goddesses on Olympus: Hera, the queen of the gods; Athena, the goddess of wisdom; and Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

Being a guy and all, Paris goes for love. Aphrodite offers him Helen of Troy as a reward for his choosing her, and a tragic reward it is, since he has to steal Helen away from the Greek King Menelaus, her husband, and all hell (all Helen?) breaks loose in the ensuing Trojan war. (There's a valuable new book on The Iliad by Caroline Alexander called The War That Killed Achilles, which merits your attention if you care about the foundational work of Western literature and haven't looked into its portrait of the bloody, futile absurdity of war since college. It's worth reading in tandem with the new Woodward book, whose overwhelming importance—if you forget the inside baseball that everyone is distracted by—is that there's no rationale whatsoever for the killing in Afghanistan.)

OK, the analogy to the judgment of Paris is a bit far-fetched, but every time I hear one of the singers I adore, musicians who have captivated my emotional being for weeks at a time with songs like Rickie Lee's "Beat Angels" or Joni's "Amelia" or Emmylou's "Boulder to Birmingham," I feel compelled to pronounce judgment, to compare the one in question to the other singer-songwriter goddesses who have captured my heart—award her the golden apple that Paris proffered to Aphrodite.

But I've written about Rosanne most often, and she's the only one I've ever written a marriage proposal to (in the form of a quixotic, tongue-in-cheek column). I treasure her good-natured (published) reply: "I plan on hanging Ron Rosenbaum's 'marriage proposal' in a prominent place. Should my husband take me for granted, he will be reminded that I am not without options." Of course she was married then and she's still happily married now, according to her new memoir Composed.

Even more gratifying to a writer, in that same note, she said that my description of the substratum of sorrow beneath her words—"the wail beneath the world" is the way I put it—was a phrase worthy of a songwriter. (God, I'm so easily manipulated.)

Still, reading Composed, and its revelations about what may be Rosanne's most beautiful sad song—"September When It Comes," a duet with her dying father—compels me once again to make judgments and once again to award her the prize, with apologies to the other three goddesses (and Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, too). The new memoir takes Rosanne into new territory as a writer and reveals something about the source of the wail beneath her words.

Composed is one of the rare memoirs that doesn't participate in the degradation/redemption narrative so common to the genre; it really is composed, written without loud clamor or false glamour. It has composure. One thing I find remarkable about it is that Rosanne seems unaware of or unwilling to write about the power that her songs have over people. Instead it's all about her struggle to write them and the emotional matrix from which they emerged. It's an act of humility that is remarkable to me: She must know!

So composure, yes, but a hard-won composure buffeted by grief. The book is really an epic saga of grief, written without a hint of the maudlin or mawkish, with a songwriter's terse, reticent, offhand grace, so a single word or phrase can speak volumes and excavate depths.

Somehow I feel the memoir hasn't yet gotten the attention it deserves because people were looking for sex, drugs, and dirty laundry. Even my friend Betsy, who might deserve to be called the World's Second-Greatest Rosanne Cash fan (she once exclaimed to me during a discussion of "Seven Year Ache," "I am Rosanne Cash!," a distinction I could not claim). Still, Betsy had wanted the book to include more about Rosanne's divorce from her first husband, the brilliant singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, author of perhaps the greatest modern country song I know (if I had to choose one): "Til I Gain Control Again."

But this is no tell-all. On one page she's married in Nashville; next page she's moving to New York, divorced.

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