Krista's Journal: A Life Circumscribed by Music Unlocks Stories of Our Own (Aug 9, 2012)

August 9, 2012

Rosanne Cash surprised me right from the start, by calling her father Johnny Cash "a mystic," and revealing herself as one too. As much as any person I've interviewed, she leaned in close. She was ready to meet me on the adventure a real conversation can be — one full of revelation and beauty.

Language and music, in that order, were the early mediums of her spiritual sensibility. She describes herself growing up as something of a geek. She remains perpetually and intellectually restless. It took her awhile to find her own voice, indeed to imagine that a life of making and performing music could be desirable. She'd grown up experiencing the performer's life — incarnate in her famous, beloved father — as hard on those one loves. As she found her own voice, she found her own delight in joining her energy to an audience. In that exchange, she also discovered all the elements of religion that she desired: truth, beauty, mystery, creativity, and a sense of the divine.

Rosanne Cash after Interview with Krista TippettWe've put the word "time travel" in the title of the show we've created from my magical hour with Rosanne Cash. It's a phrase that comes up again and again — especially when we talk about the music that emerged from her grief a few years ago when she lost her father, her mother, and her stepmother June Carter Cash within a span of 18 months. From this period, the Black Cadillac album emerged with gorgeous songs and poetry about love before life and beyond life. Past, present, and future are often linked in the songs she writes, though they often begin, as she describes it, with a single phrase or image.

There are echoes of Einstein here. Our ordinary sense of past, present, and future as distinct compartments moving forward like an arrow, he said, is a "stubbornly persistent illusion." As it turns out, Rosanne Cash has long been aware of these echoes too, signing up for physics classes when her children were young, constantly in conversation with scientists now. She talks about songs in some of the same ways scientists talk about mathematics — as discoveries, waiting to be caught, as much as inventions. For Rosanne Cash, songs are embedded in the fabric of the universe; this image alone is a gift from my time with her.

I am left with a sense of a woman who has seen a lot of life and turned that into wisdom. She is raising five children, lost her voice for several years, and underwent brain surgery four years ago. She continues to work with these raw materials of experience and wrest purpose and joy from them.

Rosanne Cash interviewSeveral people have told us that watching the video of this conversation moved them to tears. One emotional moment for her — better experienced on the video than by audio alone — comes when she tells me about performing at Folsom Prison in March of last year. There, her father created one of his most famous performances and an iconic album. While touring the prison, Rosanne Cash met a prisoner who served at San Quentin Prison when her father also played there in 1969, and was now spending the rest of his life in Folsom. Her eyes fill with tears as she describes her dialogue with these men about freedom, outer and inner, and the confusing human struggle to gain the latter, whatever our lives have brought.

There were clearly other stories here to be mined. But Rosanne Cash's openness, and her music, unlock stories of our own. We end our conversation with music, with her song titled "The World Unseen." It somewhat magically brings together the elements of Rosanne Cash's life and all of our lives — of poetry and mystery, of loss and love, of time travel. Here are the song's opening verses:

I'm the sparrow on the roof
I'm the list of everyone I have to lose
I'm the rainbow in the dirt
I am who I was and how much I can hurt

So I will look for you
In stories of the kings—
Westward leading, still proceeding
To the world unseen

Recommended Reading

Image of Composed: A Memoir
Author: Rosanne Cash
Publisher: Penguin Books (2011)
Binding: Paperback, 256 pages

Rosanne Cash's memoir isn't your conventional autobiographical narrative. It's a series of discrete memories on love and grief, motherhood and songwriting, and growing up as the child of Johnny Cash — all uniting to make a whole.

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Voices on the Radio

is a Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter and author of several books. Her latest album is The River & the Thread.