After growing up in a family of country music icons and putting together her own career with 21 Top 40 singles, Rosanne Cash would no sooner retire from being a musician than she would from being a mother. In fact, the notion of part-time parenthood makes her relish her professional roles even more.
“Four of my kids are out of the house and grown, so I only have one to manage,” says Cash, referring to her teenage son Jakob. “I think so many women feel that, Oh my God, I’m going to lose so much of my identity when my child doesn’t need me anymore for those day-to-day problems. Ultimately, I’m a mother and wife, but I’m just as much a writer and a musician. That keeps me sane.”
Yet Cash feared for her future as both a mother and a musician in 2007, when she underwent brain surgery for a disorder known as Chiari 1 malformation. Put simply, her cerebellum was too low and nearly cut off the flow of spinal fluid to her brain. The diagnosis was a relief to Cash, who had spent more than a decade searching for the cause of her debilitating pain.
“I had headaches and physical pain,” she says. “I even got to the point of thinking, Pain is normal for me; this is just what I have to put up with. Some people put up with worse. I can deal with this, until it just got to the point where I knew something was wrong, and I could not function like that anymore.”
In her best-selling 2010 memoir Composed, Cash recounts how, following surgery, her husband, musician John Leventhal, meticulously coached her through the movements necessary to negotiate a single stair step. During her recovery, the lyricist and daughter of music legend Johnny Cash would find herself reversing words and substituting some common words for others whose dictionary definitions weren’t even related.
Then there was the excruciating pain and oversensitivity that made listening to anything but classical music impossible. “It was listening to words. I just couldn’t. It was so exhausting,” says Cash, who released her critically acclaimed album The River & the Thread early this year. “It took not that long, eight or nine months [after the surgery], before I could go back to listening to music with words.” Those months of rehabilitation may have seemed to end quickly because of the many preceding years colored by love and loss.
The early 1990s were tumultuous for Cash. She and singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, who fathered three of her children, divorced. Cash also broke ties with her record label and left Nashville for New York City in a creative transformation that began while she was recording her 1987 album King's Record Shop. The album amassed four chart-topping singles, but it didn’t reflect her new focus as an artist and songwriter.
Although restless at that point, Cash took her time departing the Nashville scene, first making the introspective album Interiors, which wasn’t heavily promoted by her label. “Maybe [it] took longer than it should have. Success can be numbing and addictive. I was young, and it can be seductive when you are young. But when you don’t follow your own instincts and keep talking yourself out of what you know is true, you get into trouble.”
With her songs beginning to defy easy definition as Top 40 country music, Cash settled in New York City and wed Leventhal in 1995. Early in their marriage, she miscarried. And after Cash became pregnant with Jakob in 1998, the hormonal havoc caused polyps covering the left side of her vocal cords. Although the polyps eventually disappeared, Cash needed a year of coaching to rebuild her voice. (When the polyps returned a few years ago, they were successfully treated with steroids and vocal rest.)
Cash was an entrenched New Yorker by 2001, and the 9/11 terrorism ravaged her sense of normalcy. She was attending a parents’ meeting at her youngest daughter’s school in Lower Manhattan—just blocks from the World Trade Center—when the attacks occurred. Unable to get a cellphone signal or hail a cab, Cash and her daughter Carrie walked home as chaos bloomed behind them.
“For years it was the first thing I thought of if I heard a plane overhead. I’d wake up in the night hearing the plane. Trauma takes a long time to resolve. But hopefully you find a way that it doesn’t resonate in your life every day, that it doesn’t cause you to be fearful of other things. You find a place to put it. What I learned about myself is how tenacious I felt about being a New Yorker.”
Cash would tap her resilience again in 2003, when she lost her stepmother, June Carter Cash, and her father in less than four months. Two years later, she delivered the eulogy for her mother, Vivian Liberto Distin.
“I think that [loss] is an opportunity to appreciate things. Maybe some people appreciate what they have without the losses piling up, but it is an opportunity to appreciate things, and I took it. There are two ways you can go when you lose a lot: You can become bitter, or you can grow in gratitude.”
Cash has expressed that gratitude, in part, by being more forgiving of herself and her past. “I think that I’m starting to realize the purpose of my life is to enjoy my life. Fortunately, I more than enjoy my work and my family and my life in New York. I love it. I truly love it.”
After 30-plus years laboring to establish herself as a writer and musician in her own right (and piling up 12 Grammy nominations and one win), Cash, 59, has also embraced some of the places and traditions her parents cherished. In 2009 she released The List, an album that drew a dozen tracks from a list of 100 essential American songs her father gave her when she was 18. And the material on her latest album, produced and co-written by Leventhal, was inspired by road trips the couple took through the Mississippi River Delta after Arkansas State University asked Cash to help restore her father’s boyhood home in Dyess, Ark. During that time, Cash took up sewing, a hobby her mother adored, and—in the words of her song “A Feather’s Not a Bird”—learned to “love the thread.”
Despite a difficult childhood marked by her father’s substance abuse and her parents’ divorce, Cash says “it’s not dangerous to embrace who your parents were and what they loved. It’s about finding the thread that goes from the past into the future—ancestors and children—and seeing myself on a continuum.
“At some point it’s just not gracious to blame your parents for your problems. And, you know, they don’t live forever, so reconciling with them is, I think, key to having a happy life.”