Book Review - Rosanne Cash considers family, fame and love in new memoir Composed

Cash makes two Atlanta appearances Sat., Aug. 14

Rosanne Cash needs no introduction. The eldest daughter of legendary singer/songwriter Johnny Cash, she's released more than a dozen albums over the last three decades, including last year's critically acclaimed The List, a collection of songs culled from her father's list of the 100 best country tunes. She's also a mother of five and a published author, having written two books and appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone and New York magazine, among others. On Aug. 10, Cash releases her memoir Composed, an unpretentious and immensely personal reflection on family, fame and love.

How did writing Composed help you understand yourself and your family?

Well, I think writing a memoir helped me understand my place in my family more than anything, and how hard I worked to find that place as an oldest daughter, mother, sister. A lot of choices I made were in reaction to what I didn't want to be and I had to grow into making purely authentic choices.

What was the psychological impact of reflecting on your life for a memoir? Was it liberating? Did you ever feel beholden to people or events?

Yes, definitely. To both those questions. Part of the liberation was just in finishing the book and part of it is that I didn't really understand a lot of things about myself or my feelings about things, or how I experienced them, or themes that kept reappearing until I wrote it down. It made a lot more sense when I wrote it down. I'm a writer and I'm kinda geeky in that way — sometimes I feel I'm better on paper than in person. And also seeing how mutable time can be. I didn't know where I was headed sometimes. And when I started writing about an experience or a scene, and then suddenly these other memories would kind of intrude. So I'd say OK, I'm gonna follow it and see where it's going and why they're connected. So that was kind of an insight into my own mind.

Early on in Composed you quote one of your favorite rhymes from Ervin Rouse's "Sweeter Than Flowers:" "No, no, there's no need to bother; to speak of you now would only hurt father." Would you talk a little about composing lyrics and what moves you to write?

Laughs It's kind of funny, that couplet is so unexpected. It's kind of startling in this beautiful way. But it's also a little bit goofy in that way that old country songs can sometimes be, so I just have a real affection for it, and so did my father. That was one that he quoted to me over the phone. Composing lyrics as opposed to prose is different, but it's not that big of a leap — it's not like going from ballet dancing to brain surgery; it's more like oils to watercolor. I feel safe in song writing because it's very prescribed; it's very structured. Once you set up your rhyme scheme, you have to follow it. And the poetic license is always very comfortable. You can obscure as many real events in real life any way you want.

So, in writing this in nonfiction and a memoir, I felt a responsibility to be true to the facts as I remembered them. And you know there is melody in prose. It's more subtle, but it's there. So I was always trying to find the melody.

Despite all of the drama around your parents' split, you seem to have had this sort of Zen approach to it all. Toward the end of the book, you talk about your "philosophical approach" to dealing with it and have this clarity of being able to see your parents as humans rather than parents. So it felt like you never really held a grudge in the way many kids would.

No, I didn't hold a grudge. That's not to say it wasn't painful to watch my parents' marriage disintegrate and to watch how self-destructive they both were as well, in different ways. But I did have kind of an overarching philosophical attitude about it: I saw that they were not happy together and that they had a chance to be happy apart. And it was also a way to mitigate some of the pain, surely.

One of my favorite anecdotes in the book is the one you tell about your dad making peach ice cream for you and your friends in the summer in Tennessee. It was just this great image that was a little bit unexpected.

I loved those summers with my dad and I guess that's not really something that was part of his public persona, you know, was how good a dad he could be. And these little things that he was so generous about: teaching us to water-ski, making the ice cream, driving us around in the Jeep and taking us to movies. And then, how close he was as a parent, you know, and involved. He wasn't involved on a day-to-day basis like a lot of dads might be, but he was involved with his heart emotionally with us. And I wanted to talk about that relationship with my dad, not some kind of public ideal of him.

Composed by Rosanne Cash. $26.95. Viking Adult. 256 pp.

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