Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 14, 2011

What I’m Reading: Composed by Rosanne Cash

I’m a fan of Rosanne Cash’s voice and music, and admire many of her brave choices with words. She calls this memoir an installment with more to come. “This is not a chronological fact-check of my life, and I am sure my sisters or my husband or my children remember some of these events very differently.” She writes, “Not to set any record straight, but to extend the poetry, and to find the more subtle melodies and themes…” Sometimes she gets to the core, as she does in songs she’s written, but I did some skimming of events one might expect from a life filled with concerts, a complicated childhood with a famous father, romances, the births of five children: I didn’t need all the details of things like how many oranges a pregnant woman might eat – okay, actually I found that compelling: who peeled them all? And while I didn’t especially care about her Armani jackets or that she wore satin Prada pumps to her mother’s funeral, it was poignant to learn that the mud on the heels was still there when she attended her father’s funeral.

What I most got from the book were things any writer can learn from someone who attempts to burn life down into song. Roseanne Cash sang at a lot of venues, many of which, especially starting out, weren’t welcoming, and was advised by a pro to sing to the 6% of the audience who could listen. Sometimes she thought that might be 2%. Sometimes she was singing to the band. I like the reminder that we’re rarely likely to capture everyone with our words, but to focus on those who might need them.

I liked reading a bit about her writing classes, and even more about painting lessons she took “so I could learn about the absence of words and sound, and why I needed them.” She speaks of how John Stewart, who wrote “Runaway Train,” encouraged her to expand her subject matter and language, and criticized songs he thought were too “perfect” or contrived, asking, “but where’s the madness, Rose?” And how looking back to hard times, she learns “How we remember is as important as what we remember.”

Here’s September When it Comes, which she sings with her father, not long before Johnny Cash died in September 2003. In COMPOSED she describes how as he sang, he grew stronger with every take. And she cried from behind the glass sound booth:

“I cannot move a mountain now, I can no longer run.
I cannot be who I was then. In a way, I never was.”



  1. I like the advice she received on singing to the six percent of the audience who are listening. The detail regarding the mud on her heels made my heart squeeze a little, and so did the image of Johnny Cash growing stronger as he sang. Sounds like an incredible story.

  2. Thanks so much for this review. I’ve been following her tweets on Twitter for some months now, and I am positively in love with this artist. I’ve been meaning to get her book — just as soon as I “work down my stack” a little bit. I may pick it up this week for Spring break, we’ll be traveling and this looks like a good vacation read.

  3. She earned her insight and her way into her voice — writing about wanting for so long to sound like Emmylou Harris or Joni Mitchell or Laura Nyro before accepting “my own instrument.”

  4. She is amazing, and the book builds to the Black Cadillac years which included way too many family deaths, plus her surgery. It’s good she “finds inspiration in the trenches.”
    In many ways, the book just made me want to get back to the music, but that’s all right, and it’s a pretty fast read and does sound good for traveling: there’s nothing you really have to remember from one point to another, so it’s easy to pick up and put down. Happy spring break!

  5. I’m adding this one to my list. Thanks for sharing the highlights.

  6. Sometimes she was singing to the band.
    I have done some of my best writing that way.
    Lovely post, Jeannine!

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