"I've never really talked about this before because, in print, it could sound, uh, flaky or egocentric, but I always do remind myself that it's not about me," Cash says from her home in New York City. "If I get to channel some kind of energy in performance or on record and provide some kind of mirror for people, or some kind of outlet or some kind of understanding of themselves through the songs, then it's not me necessarily doing it. Yes, I had to refine my skills enough to be able to support it, but it still is the vast realm of creative energy I'm tapping into, you know, and I think that's God, that creative realm. And it's just being available to be connected to it. I really feel that it all has to be done with love. Even protest, even civil disobedience, even anger--it has to be done with love. We're all connected and we're responsible for each other, and if you lead with malice, it's just too destructive."
There's a reason rock critics--and Nation writers--love Rosanne Cash: because she's a writer of prose and essays who also happens to play guitar, possess a wondrous voice (Metaphor No. 148: warm steam off a frozen pond at dawn; Metaphor 593: a down comforter on a winter's night; there's plenty more), conjure resonant melodies and have for a father one of music's most legendary figures she's now comfortable to talk about. At last, they even sing together on Rules of Travel: The song's called "September When it Comes," and though it could and should apply to any child making peace with an aging, ailing parent, the fact it's Johnny and Rosanne trading lines about lengthening shadows that will "fly me like an angel to a place where I can rest" makes it feel like a family heirloom.
"But if it was just about me and my dad, then it kind of reduces it to narcissism," she insists. "It's about that exchange that goes on with an adult child and a parent facing mortality and the changes that happen then and that adult child coming to some sort of resolution about her childhood and past, which is common to all of us, if you're the least bit awake. Then it's served its purpose; then it is of service. Just about me and my dad--ultimately, who cares?"
Rosanne Cash is this perfect package, the readymade profile: literate, confident, outspoken, funny, pretty as hell, sharper than a shiv. In the seven years since her last release--10 Song Demo, a collection of rough tracks with burnished edges--Cash lost her voice (a polyp developed on her vocal cords), gained a fourth child (son Jake, now 4) and embarked on a career as essayist and short-story writer. She wrote for such places as The Oxford American and Martha Stewart Living, and in '96 Avon published Bodies of Water, a collection of short stories that read like her songs: They were populated by ghosts of dead relatives and dead relationships, by memories that got in the way like roadblocks, by mothers struggling to give birth and raise kids and, in one instance, by a singer-songwriter who was only free during those two hours she was onstage.
Seven years on, she's unbound all the time, consequences be damned: Cash knows she did herself no favors when, on February 27, she appeared at a Manhattan news conference announcing the formation of Musicians United to Win Without War. Along with the likes of Wilco, R.E.M. and Outkast, she signed her name to an ad that appeared in The New York Times that week, which read, in enormous type, "War in Iraq is Wrong and We Know It" and proclaimed, "Don't let Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld drown out the voices of reason!"
Three weeks later, just as war broke out, Cash posted to her Web site, www.rosannecash.com, an essay in which she condemned the Bush administration for launching a pre-emptive first strike against Iraq and those who would damn war protesters for being anti-American. "I am American by birth, by choice and by love, and the right of free speech is the tenet I hold most dear," she wrote. "Therefore I am not afraid to say, as an American and a mother, that I think this war is a grave mistake, but I do support the young men and women who have been sent to fight it, and I wish them a hasty return home." Though it's doubtful her anti-war stance will affect album sales--she's no Natalie Maines, that coward--it sure ain't gonna help her.