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Loss Drives Rosanne Cash's "Cadillac"

Country singer's album was inspired by the deaths of father Johnny, stepmother June and mother Vivian

January 30, 2006 12:00 AM ET

It was the spring of 2003, and Rosanne Cash had just finished writing an ominous song about the coffin of a loved one being hauled away in a black Cadillac. "I remember feeling, like, 'Oh, shit,'" recalls the late Johnny Cash's eldest daughter, her voice full of emotion. "I was really aware of what I had just written, and what it meant. It wasn't pleasant."

The tune, "Black Cadillac," would serve as an eerie harbinger of three deaths. Within the next two years, Cash would lose her mother, Johnny Cash's first wife Vivian Liberto Cash Distin; her stepmother, June Carter Cash; and her iconic father, who died in September 2003. But "Black Cadillac" would also serve as the linchpin for a deeply personal album of the same name. Released this month, the record finds the fifty-year-old singer-songwriter confronting loss, love and growing up the daughter of a music legend.

With the attention surrounding the recent biopic Walk the Line, and with a Broadway musical based on Johnny Cash's music, Ring of Fire, due to open in March, Black Cadillac arrives with interest in Cash at a highpoint. The questions about her father and family become wearying, Rosanne Cash admits: "It's not difficult to talk about the music; it is difficult to go over the back story, over and over. But I'm finding my way through this."

Cash's tenth studio album was co-produced by her husband John Leventhal and pop-country veteran Bill Bottrell. She drew inspiration from fellow New York resident Lou Reed, whose 1992 album Magic and Loss was "a touchstone for making this record. It helped to know that there was a precedent — and a good precedent. To know that I wasn't just out on a limb by myself making a death record."

The swirling title track actually quotes the horns from one of her father's signature songs, the June Carter-penned "Ring of Fire." Bottrell had timidly suggested the reference. "I said, 'Absolutely!'" Cash says. "I just loved it. I thought it was a brilliant gesture."

Through songs such as "Like Fugitives" and "World Without Sound" — which asks, "Who do I believe/Once they put you in the ground?" — Cash lets loose on the difficulties of having to share her grief with the public. "There are some fans of my dad's who have this sense of territorialism about him," says Cash. "I had a guy come up to me and say, 'Do you love your father?' And I said, 'Yes.' And he said, 'No. I love your father!' It borders on the psychotic, I'm telling you."

Compounding the problem was her public opposition to the war in Iraq, which angered many of her father's admirers. "I got so much hate mail," Cash says. "Invariably, they would say, 'Your father's a real American, and you should go sleep with Sadaam.' " Ironically, Johnny Cash himself was adamantly against the war. "It broke his heart, it really did," she asserts, claiming that her father was "addicted" to war coverage on CNN during his last months. "We talked about it in every single conversation we had," she says. "He was almost a Quaker in his pacifism. He thought there was never a reason for war — and he had felt that way, he told me, since the Vietnam War."

Despite the painful subject matter, finishing Black Cadillac became "a near-obsession" for Cash. "I couldn't have abandoned it," she says. "Some of the songs I had written first were so dark — but I could see there were going to be other colors on this, that it wasn't just going to be a dark, dark tunnel." A turning point, she says, was the hopeful track "The Good Intent." The song, named for the ship that brought her ancestors from Scotland to America, traces the Cash family history.

Cash has already scheduled some scattered concert dates in March, as well as a double bill with Kris Kristofferson on April 2nd in Philadelphia. And she plans to tour this summer — when her youngest child, a first-grader, is on vacation. She admits the thought of touring the personal material was "daunting" at first, but recent live appearances have changed her mind.

"I was a little worried it would be depressing, but it's not," she says. "Some of it becomes elegiac in performance. Some of it can become liberating, when I thought it was just painful. What the audience brings to it makes a huge difference."

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