Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash
Episode 46

Rosanne Cash

Episode 46

Rosanne Cash on Moving Forward by Confronting the Past

Interview by Andrew Zuckerman

For Grammy Award–winning singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash, processing the past is a constant, endless journey. She’d been thinking about race and reparations long before the Movement for Black Lives gained momentum last year, as both racism and African-American ancestry exist in her family history rooted in the American South, where she was born to country music legend Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian Liberto, in 1955. Cash channeled her anguish into “The Killing Fields,” a haunting single that reckons with the United States’s legacy of lynchings, and “Crawl into the Promised Land,” a blistering yet optimistic response to the tumultuous events of 2020. Last month, she released both tracks on a seven-inch limited-edition vinyl, the sales from which will benefit the Arkansas Peace and Justice Memorial Movement, a nonprofit that raises awareness about the state’s history of racial injustice.  

Over the last four decades, Cash, who now lives in New York, has established herself as one of the rare voices in popular music who sings from the uncut perspective of a grown woman, fraught with opinions, mixed emotions, and battle scars. With each album she releases (there are 14 to date), she seems to gain a deeper understanding of herself. After earning 11 number one hits on Billboard’s country music chart during the 1980s, Cash released Interiors (1990), a dark, reflective album that marked a departure from her commercial work. While country radio stations and her label all but ignored the record, she’s embraced the honest, deeply personal approach used to make it as her modus operandi ever since. 

Her recent work is increasingly intimate: Cash confronts her Southern roots and grapples with her life as a wife, mother, and former country star in the 2014 album The River and The Thread; her 2018 album She Remembers Everything—released against the backdrop of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings and during the rise of the #MeToo movement—tackles the plight of women in America with songs about divorce, ingrained social hierarchies, and death, including a track about a boy killed by gun violence told from the viewpoint of his mother. She has also written articles for The Atlantic, The Nation, and The New York Times about subjects that matter to her, such as the need for country music artists to speak out in support of gun control. Eschewing any self-righteousness, these efforts, whether singing, songwriting, or prose, are her way of working through the complexities of life. “I have to keep showing up for the things I believe in,” she says, noting that she often feels like a fraud. “That’s part of being an artist. You come up against that, and you still show up, because you have to. The world needs it.” 

On this episode, Cash discusses what it means to reckon with history, talking with Andrew about her long-standing work as an activist, the healing power of music, and continually revisiting the past as a means for personal and artistic evolution.


Cash talks about the stark ups and downs she experienced during the pandemic, spanning a welcome break from life on the road to the devastating impact Covid-19 has had on friends and members of her family.

Cash discusses how her personal reckoning with racial and political injustices led her to write her latest singles, “Crawl into the Promised Land” and “The Killing Fields.”

Cash discusses the musicians who sparked her interest in songwriting when she was growing up. She also recalls creating her first album in Germany, her ambivalence toward fame, and the country music world’s reaction to her pivotal 1990 record, Interiors.

Cash remembers moving from Nashville to Manhattan in the ’90s, and the trying experiences that made her a New Yorker—including an awkward cell phone call she received from former vice president Al Gore while standing in the pouring rain.

Cash speaks about the impact that artists from outside the music realm have on her work and life. She also discusses writing songs that have multiple meanings, and the importance of leaving them up for interpretation.

Cash recounts a road trip she and her husband took to visit her father’s boyhood home in rural Alabama. She also details the act of revisiting the past over time, and the necessity of sharing her work with the world.

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ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: Welcome, Rosanne. Thanks so much for joining us today.

ROSANNE CASH: My pleasure.

AZ: So, it’s springtime in New York City.

RC: You wouldn’t know it.

AZ: No, not today. But today, I want to talk about change—change in general, and the subject of change. On Twitter, you recently wrote, “I got the vaccine today and when the nurse said, ‘Congratulations,’ I teared up. I can feel the anxiety slowly starting to lift.” How do things feel to you now?

RC: It’s going in increments. I wouldn’t say I feel empowered to do whatever I want yet, but I’m far less anxious than I was a year ago. And I think that’s how all of us will transition into this. I don’t know anyone who’s just turned the on/off switch, and gone out to their former life.

AZ: There was an article the other day that talked about “languishing,” the—

RC: I read that in the Times. Languishing. Yeah.

AZ: Yeah, languishing.

RC: I’ve enjoyed the languishing, to tell you the truth. I don’t know if I want to give it up yet. 

There’s a creative seeding that’s gone on for me. I’ve heard a lot of people say that they feel guilty talking about the good things about the pandemic for them, but I had a lot of good things. I got off the road. I was so burnt out from being on the road, and in May of last year I wrote this piece for The Atlantic called “I Will Miss What I Wanted to Lose,” about being in my own kitchen, sleeping in my own bed, and locking myself in my own house and not being able to go out. There was something incredibly freeing about that. I know that’s counterintuitive, but it was, and it was really nurturing for me. My husband [John Leventhal] and I got closer. My son was forced to be with us. That wasn’t always easy for him, but I loved it. So there was a retreat that was good for me.

AZ: You must’ve missed being together with people. I mean, you literally had a sewing circle—which I love.

RC: Yeah. I miss my sewing circle terribly. That was one thing I really did miss, and seeing my friends. I’ve only seen a girlfriend five times in the last year. Since I got double-vaxxed, I went out and met a friend outside for drinks a few nights ago, and I couldn’t stop talking to her. She couldn’t stop talking to me. It was so great.

AZ: You didn’t do the stitch ‘n’ bitch during the pandemic, on Zoom?

RC: No. We did meet on Zoom a few times, a bunch of women, and it was great, but, you know, it’s not quite the same.

AZ: No.

RC: Actually, in the last year, we did so many performances on video. There were a lot of charities, and benefits, and galas, and venues that were suffering, and Music Health Alliance, and all of these things. It became a cottage industry in the last year. But it really brought out the stark difference of the chemical reaction you have with a live audience. I missed that terribly, but I got a lot of notes and messages about how much people appreciated it in lockdown, and not just because of the lockdown: There’s a significant portion of people who don’t have the discretionary income to go to a concert, or they’re too rural, or whatever. They really appreciated it. So it was touching.

AZ: But the act of doing it was lacking something?

RC: It was lacking. It was in a vacuum, a bit. And then there was the learning curve of how to do it properly, with lighting, and what you wouldn’t think of—

AZ: Yeah. Also, at home?

RC: Yeah.

AZ: You and your husband, just doing it?

RC: Yeah.

AZ: Amazing. What were some of the other things you did outside of music and writing that got you through 2020?

RC: I wrote a lot. I don’t know if I ever want to cook again, but I did get into baking, like a lot of other people, and cleaning closets and organizing. I mean, the things you read about that people did during this. 

I felt so bad for people with children, young children. And for my son, [Jakob William Leventhal], too, in college. He was in Paris for his junior quarter, abroad, when the pandemic started, and we started getting so nervous. We brought him home a little bit early, and we were on the road and got home the day before the lockdown. So the first month it was just kind of—just nerves. Then we started settling in, and we watched a lot more TV.

AZ: I was talking to Paul Holdengräber [on Ep. 20 of the At a Distance podcast] after you had done the interview with him.

RC: I cried all the way through that interview.

AZ: On his incredible podcast, The Quarantine Tapes, that he was doing. We were doing one called At a Distance at the time that was very similar, recording conversations with people about what was happening at the time. We thought Paul would be an amazing one to speak to, who had been speaking to all these people. And he recounted the conversation that he’d had with you on that program with us. You’d said to him, “Everything I feel now is hard and fast and true.” And then Paul came back in the most interesting way and said, “No feeling is final.” That was on April 10, right after the time you’re talking about. At that moment, you’d lost two people close to you.

RC: Mm-hmm.

AZ: Did that stick with you, “No feeling is final?”

RC: Oh, god. I’m tearing up thinking about it, actually. It was just a day or two, I think, or very shortly after John Prine died. That was devastating on several levels. That was like an entry into the pandemic. It was so early. My daughter [Chelsea] had had Covid right before that, and was so sick—she was in the emergency room twice. That was deeply unsettling, to say the least. And then a friend lost both of her parents that same week. And Hal Willner died the same day as Prine. It was this avalanche of fear and loss, and I didn’t know how to navigate it. I had already told Paul I would do this podcast, and it was just—I couldn’t find my center at all. [Pauses] Oh, man.

AZ: But I feel like the “No feeling is final” [comment] is the most profound thing that came out of that—what he said to you, actually.

RC: Yeah. And that’s very Buddhist, isn’t it?

AZ: Do you feel that now?

RC: Yeah. That was helpful. I mean, he’s a deep guy, you know?

AZ: Yeah.

RC: He has a way of putting things in perspective, and he was very calm. 

Do I feel that way now, that no feeling is final? Sure. My instincts are toward Buddhism. Always have been. It’s the only religion that makes sense to me, actually. Self-awareness, non-violence … and what’s the [other principles]? I forget. See, I’m not a very good Buddhist.

AZ: It’s so interesting, when Prine left, that song “In Spite of Ourselves” came up a lot. And the feeling of getting over yourself during a time where everyone was so survivalistic, self-obsessed.

RC: Well, the self-obsession, the energy…. You know, we stayed in New York the whole time. We didn’t leave the city. And the feeling of community was really powerful. The seven o’clock cheer—my block was kind of lit. We did it every night, and just the anguish for healthcare workers…. I’ll never forget that the sound of the pandemic for me was John’s Telecaster coming out of our ground floor, where his studio is, and the sirens in back of it. It was all day long, both of them. It was beautiful, and it was heartbreaking, too.

AZ: He was playing a lot of music.

RC: A lot of music.

AZ: Everyone had a way of pushing through it.

RC: He recorded a solo album in this last year.

AZ: As things changed, you began getting to work, and you actually released two new singles during the pandemic: “Crawl Into the Promised Land” and “The Killing Fields.” I want to start with “The Killing Fields.” What did that come out of? How did that come together?

RC: Last summer, when the Black Lives Matter protests started, George Floyd…. Leading up to that, I had been thinking a lot about race and reparation. And the year before, John and I went, on my birthday, to Montgomery, Alabama, to the lynching memorial, the Legacy Museum. I had talked, by email, with Bryan Stevenson a bit. Then we went to Selma, and stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This was 2019, so it was troubling me, deeply. And it was troubling me in a really personal way because my [paternal] grandfather was a racist to the core. It was a source of shame, and a spiritual burden for me.

Like I said, I was thinking about reparation, but I was thinking of the next generation’s responsibility to break the chain, which my dad did, but my generation [needs] to go further than that, and to real acknowledgement and reparation. And my children’s generation, further than that, which I can’t define exactly. The other day, my daughter sent me a picture of my son-in-law reading a book to their toddler called Antiracist Baby. [Laughs] So cute! So anyway, this was weighing on me. And then the protests happened, and for so many of us, it just broke open our thinking, and the veil of white privilege—you started to see it. We had been breathing it like oxygen for so long that we didn’t—

AZ: Know it was there.

RC: —even know it was there. All of that was just a cracking open, and I wrote “The Killing Fields” that summer. John and I wrote “Crawl into The Promised Land” together that summer and I wrote “The Killing Fields” alone. “Crawl into The Promised Land” was leading up to the election, and it was that palpable sense of anguish and fear, and just the disgust of the last four years. And “The Killing Fields” came out of the protests.

AZ: When you decided to focus on the lynchings that occurred in Arkansas, you could have chosen many, many stories. Why were you connected to that?

RC: Because my [paternal] grandfather was a cotton farmer in Arkansas. And I gave a little money to the Emmett Till [Interpretive] Center and it [asked], “Is this in memory of someone?” And I put my grandfather. It was just like a little flag in the sand. Then, when I wrote “The Killing Fields,” I thought, I can’t keep any money that comes from this, it has to dovetail with an action. Even though it’s a small action. It had to [happen in] Arkansas, in my mind.

I found out about this organization called the Arkansas Peace and Justice Memorial Movement. They document lynchings in Arkansas. But more than that, they [participate in an initiative] called Coming to the Table, where they bring together descendants of perpetrators and descendants of victims. And, I mean, that’s kind of definitive reparation, isn’t it?

AZ: It reminds me of what [Desmond] Tutu did with truth and reconciliation. The same thing: making something visible and confronting it is how you deal with it.

RC: Right.

AZ: It’s the only way.

RC: It’s the only way, and to do it with love, and the purpose of healing, and not to blame the descendants of the perpetrators, but to acknowledge the burden they carry in their hearts and the generational trauma of that for both sides.

AZ: It seems very fitting that that’s where it would land. You’ve been involved with activism in many different areas: women’s issues, gun violence, Black Lives Matter. I was rereading, in preparing for today, the 2017 op-ed you wrote for The New York Times.

RC: About the Las Vegas shooting?

AZ: Yeah. It starts with, “Every time I speak out on the need for stricter gun laws, I get a new profusion of threats.” You were speaking very much to your industry, but [also] everyone at large. How do you think about these issues, specifically gun violence, in the context of music, of the music industry, and what has the reaction been when you come out? How do you handle that reaction?

RC: The Las Vegas massacre made it clear that this was happening in our workspace. It was at a festival. So if you could deny beforehand that it didn’t have anything to do with you as a musician, you can’t deny that anymore. In fact, I know a young musician who contacted me after that and said, “I was a total N.R.A. type, and this has changed my thinking.”

AZ: Brilliant.

RC: Yeah, it was brilliant. I mean, this isn’t a trendy thing for me to get involved in. I’ve been involved in this since Columbine [High School massacre in 1999]. I walked in the Million Mom March in 2000 and spoke there, and have been writing about it since that year. I wrote a piece for Rolling Stone in 2000 [about the Million Mom March]. I’ve done everything. I’ve laid on the pavement in Times Square [in a protest against gun violence]. I’ve done a million benefits and fundraisers. And this thing at [St. Mark’s Episcopal] Church in Washington [called the National Vigil for All Victims of Gun Violence], where all the families who’ve lost someone carry the picture of their loved one to the front of the church—I sang at that [in 2019]. [Sighs] Oh, man.

Anyway, yeah, I always get threats after I write or do something. At first, it was really disconcerting, and then I thought, Fuck it. What, they’re not going to buy my record? Why should I care about that? I’d rather look myself in the mirror and say, “This is part of mothering. This is part of being a parent.”

AZ: Yeah. You once said, “[If we] lock an aspirin bottle, [then we should protect kids from guns.]”

RC: Exactly. There are so many laws about the strings on Roman shades, or an aspirin bottle, or a car seat, or hundreds and thousands of other things, but you can leave an unloaded locked gun anywhere you want. It’s insanity. It’s the definition of insanity. So, I don’t know. I ignore the threats. The one that really got to me is, somebody threatened my daughter. Then I got scared. But she kept showing up, too. She kept making a stand for it.

AZ: When you were young, were you political in any way? I mean, you came up in the sixties.

RC: Oh, yeah. Yeah, totally. I knocked on doors for George McGovern when I was too young to vote. A cousin, who’s much older and lives in my mother’s parents’ house, found a letter that I had written at the age of nine to Lyndon Johnson, and she sent it to me. I mean, I always felt excited by the political process, and social events, and protests. All of that, just—it thrilled me to insert yourself as a part of society, and to say what you thought. Of course, part of that was my dad. My mother [Vivian Liberto] was not nearly as political. In fact, it made her nervous, a bit. But my dad was so outspoken. The implication to me in what he passed on is: If you don’t have the courage to stand up and say what you think is right, then what are you here for? And all art is political. You know?

AZ: Absolutely.

RC: Whether it’s overt or not.

AZ: But you also come to that outside the political nature of it, the emotional, or the driver for it, is a deep empathy. And that comes from somewhere, as the empathy for the other.

RC: Yeah. Well, I mean, was I born with that? Did I learn it? Probably both.

AZ: Growing up, you thought you’d be a poet. Where did your initial interest in writing and language come from?

RC: Same, I don’t know. Did I learn it as I grew up, or was it innate? I mean, I think a bit of both. I remember my dad had this album called Ballads of the True West. It was a concept album, and there were a lot of narratives in it about characters, places, events, some historical and some fictional. I went really deep into those stories. I was a small child then, but they were so visual to me, and the history of it really interested me, and the fact that some of these characters, like John Wesley Hardin, really existed. I guess that captured me. The poetry, that you could take a piece of history and rhyme it, and put a melody to it—that just captured me. And then, of course, The Beatles, and—

AZ: Joni Mitchell.

RC: The Beatles and Joni Mitchell. That was the first time I realized that a woman could be a songwriter. Really. Before that I thought, Oh, only men are songwriters.

AZ: With Blue?

RC: Yeah, with Blue.

AZ: How old were you when you first…. You were a teenager?

RC: Blue would have been [during my] early teens, maybe. 

AZ: But that had a massive effect on you?

RC: Massive. Changed my life.

AZ: You didn’t know many women musicians at the time, personally?

RC: No. No. Well, there were a few. There’s Patsy Cline, but she wasn’t a songwriter. There was Loretta [Lynn]. There were these country artists, and then after Joni, then there was Grace Slick and Janis Joplin. I got really into these women, but not exclusively. There was also Buffalo Springfield, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. And there was Simon and Garfunkel.

AZ: Yeah.

RC: There was genius, and gifts, and talent, and then there wasn’t. I didn’t define it by male and female then. And I still don’t. It was just that this click, this change happened, where I realized a woman could do it. But then I never thought that women were the B-team. This thing about “women’s music”—I always hated that.

AZ: Yeah. Well, by nature it creates a sort of separation.

RC: That’s right.

AZ: It’s just music, made by Joni or—

RC: Or Neil Young.

AZ: Yeah. Whatever. You’ve said that you didn’t like performing at first, but you grew to enjoy it once you realized that performance is an interchange. I’m wondering how you discovered that, what you really mean by the “interchange”?

RC: I didn’t want to be a performer. I just wanted to be a writer. And I wanted to write songs in my little room, and put them out in the world, and let these depth charges go off from my language and melodies. I thought that was the superior profession. But in some ways, I was hiding behind that, because I was shy, and I didn’t want the attention of performing. And also, my dad was a great performer. I didn’t want to—

AZ: It wasn’t that there was a negative side to it. That you were like, “My dad is a performer. He’s amazing. Everybody loves him.” But that there’s this other person I know, who maybe because of the performing, lives life like this or—

RC: Yeah. The lifestyle didn’t interest me, particularly because my mother thought it was terrible. Terrible lifestyle. You got divorced, you got on drugs, you were never home. Eventually, I ended up pushing that away. But, like I said, too, I didn’t want to draw comparisons to my dad. Then he took me on the road, after high school. Then he started [saying], “Why don’t you come on stage and sing this background part?” I was terrified. Then I started writing songs. I was in Germany visiting a friend, and she worked for Ariola records. She took me to a Christmas party with her, at the record label. And she was so effusive about me to the label heads: “Oh, my friend Rosanne writes these songs. You should hear them.” And the label said casually, “Well, send me your songs.”

[Her name] was Renate Damm. She pushed me to send the songs to him. They were not great songs by any stretch of the imagination, but I guess something was there, some potential. And he said, “Well, why don’t you make a record for Europe, on Ariola?” I had to think about it. I couldn’t get out of bed for a couple of days. I couldn’t decide about this, because I knew that if I went through that door, that would lead to a lot of stuff I wasn’t sure I wanted to take part in. It would lead to going on the road. It would lead to a public life. It could lead to fame—one of the worst things that could happen to you.

AZ: Addiction.

RC: Addiction. All of that. Although, I hadn’t taken my mom’s fears about that so much. It was just the lifestyle, and also the public life.

AZ: Which you had stayed out of, largely, as a child.

RC: Yeah. I’d stayed out of [it]. But god, my dad, at one point in his career, had to—if he wanted to take us roller skating, he had to rent the [entire] skating rink. He couldn’t—

AZ: It’s embarrassing.

RC: Yes. He could not go anywhere without being bothered. Walking through an airport with my dad was like … it was insanity. 

So, my friend got so concerned about me because I couldn’t get out of bed. She took me to a doctor, and she said, “What’s wrong with her?” And he talked to me, examined me. He said, “She’s depressed.” I thought, Well, okay, I’ll make the record. And that was it. I made the record. I was so nervous about what would happen. They wouldn’t let me bring who I wanted to bring to produce it. I wanted Rodney Crowell to produce it, because I had just met him. We did these demos in the studio, and I really liked him. They said, “No, you have to do it with a German producer.” I mean, there’s a lot to unpack about this. The short version is, I did it. It was a really tough experience.

AZ: A lot to unpack in terms of the process of making it?

RC: The process of making it, and what happened afterwards. I was in Munich for four months, and I thought at that point I would become an expatriate. I really didn’t want to go back to the States.

AZ: At a really rough time in America, actually.

RC: Yeah.

AZ: Just forty years ago. More than forty years ago.

RC: So I came back to the States. I had a lawyer by that time, and he took the record to Columbia [Records], and they signed me. That was it. Then I struggled. It was like climbing a mountain. It was like sometimes having my nails in a cliff. It was a time when womentalk about being the B-team. I mean, there was so much sexism, and a lot of harassment, and a lot of expectations that were really awful. And creepiness, and being touched, and particularly kinds of payola. Radio didn’t want to play two women back to back. So if they had one woman, they wouldn’t play another woman’s record. Actually, some scary stuff, too. Men who were—not just bad behavior, but violence.

I just kept my head down, and focused on the work. I really wanted to write songs. I really wanted to do that. And that kept driving me. That’s not to say I was stronger than somebody. I mean, I probably was luckier, but I know women who gave up because of it. It was just too hard.

AZ: Yeah. But pushing through that got you to ’81, when you released “Seven Year Ache,” which became a number one hit. How did that change things for you? Did you feel like it got a little easier, or it got harder?

RC: In some ways it got harder, because I was panicked about the success of that record. Then I thought, Oh, my god, I’m going to get famous. [Laughs] I really don’t want to get famous. I want to do this and not get famous. 

I think about that now, and I think, Well, I’ve done a lot of things backwards in my life. I still have the reverse reaction to certain medications. It’s like, things go backwards in my life a lot, and I don’t know why. So, I didn’t want it. I was scared. I had just had a baby. I didn’t know how to be—

AZ: Your first?

RC: My first. I didn’t know how to be a parent. I didn’t know how to be on the road. I didn’t know how to do a lot of—

AZ: And you were living in Nashville?

RC: No, I was living in L.A.

AZ: In L.A. But eventually you came down South?

RC: Yeah.

AZ: On the success of that record?

RC: The reason was not because of the record. The reason was because I had had a baby, and lived through several earthquakes. In my new-mother’s anxiety, I thought, I want to move someplace where there’s no earthquakes. We were living in Malibu Canyon, and my baby was crawling across the floor and almost grabbed a scorpion, thinking it was a toy. And I thought, I’m out of here. [Laughs] I’m not living here any more.

AZ: And it wasn’t the scene. It wasn’t the social life you cared about. You were there to be someone in solitude.

RC: Yeah. There were several people I was really close to. Emmylou [Harris]. Emmylou moved to Nashville. Hank DeVito was one of our closest friends. He moved to Nashville. It just started happening. There was this kind of…. People were leaving.

AZ: What were your feelings about the South at the time? I mean, I know recently—and I want to get to it—you’ve revisited that. But at the time, what was your connection to the South? Because people think you maybe grew up in the South, because of your dad, but you didn’t. You grew up in Southern California, right?

RC: I grew up in Southern California. Was born in Memphis, but we left when I was three. So I didn’t have memories. When I moved to Nashville, I had purple hair, and had a bit of an attitude, and I wanted things the way I wanted them. The South, in the early eighties, was really different. Women were still putting their hair in curlers, and getting made up to go to the grocery store, and they didn’t have the diapers that I used for the baby. Those were only in L.A. Or you couldn’t get a bagel. [Laughs] I went in kind of thinking, Oh, well, everybody’s going to be nice to me. And aren’t you happy I’m here? And that was not the case.

AZ: Well, you’ve spoken about that many times over the years, but you are a true New Yorker, and probably were from the beginning. It just took you a minute to get here.

RC: Totally.

AZ: You’ve been here since what? 1990 or ’91, or something?

RC: Yeah, ’91.

AZ: There’s a story that’s out there about your relationship to New York that I would love for you to share with me, and the connection to the green [suede] jacket,and essentially how that ties into the album that followed Seven Year Ache.

RC: When I was 14, my dad brought me and my sisters to New York. He was very much hooked up with the [Greenwich] Village folk scene. He knew a lot of those writers. He was friends, and in correspondence with Bob Dylan, and Peter LaFarge, and all of those singer-songwriters who populated the Village in the sixties and early seventies, too.

AZ: And Graham Nash, who took that incredible portrait of him.

RC: Yeah.

AZ: Probably the best portrait of him ever made, I think.

RC: Yeah. So there was this place in the village called the Stitching Horse, and he had leather stuff made for himself there, or had in the past. He took us down to the Stitching Horse—I think it was on Bleecker Street. I can’t remember now; it’s long gone. You got to pick out the leather or the suede you wanted, and design [it], and they would make it for you. So I stood in front of that big mirror and I picked out this green suede and it had a collar, kind of an early seventies collar and it was down to my knees, and it was so cool. I was standing looking in the mirror the day that they were fitting me for it. I looked out at the street in the Village, and I looked back in the mirror, and I thought, That’s me in the mirror, in this place.

That made such a profound impact on me that it never went away, through adulthood. “That’s me in the mirror.” Every time I would come back [to New York], I would long for it. I hated leaving. When I moved to Nashville, there was this airline called People Express, and you could fly—

AZ: Thirty bucks or whatever. Yeah.

RC: With thirty bucks!

AZ: My mom used to bring me on People Express from Maryland when I was a kid.

RC: You could fly for thirty bucks to New York. So I would just use it like a bus and go, on the weekends, go to New York. I made this record in Nashville in ’90 or ’89, I can’t remember, called Interiors. I had had big success in the record before, with King’s Record Shop. And there were four number-one record singles.

AZ: First time a woman had ever—

RC: First time a woman had ever had four number-one singles off one album. It was a big deal. I had a lot of leverage. I asked them for a lot of money, and [said] that I wanted to produce my next album myself.

AZ: Money’s helpful if you’re moving to New York. [Laughs]

RC: I didn’t know I was moving to New York then, but yes. So I made the record, and I had the idea to go in a completely different direction than King’s Record Shop. I wanted to make it really stripped down, acoustic. I said, “I’m not going to even use any drums on the record”—which I ended up doing on a few songs, because the guys in the band went, “Come on! Just put a snare on this. Please.” It was really dark. I was in the process of divorcing Rodney [Crowell] without knowing it. And so the label guy, the head of A&R, came over to hear the record, when I was finished with it. He sat in the back, and he didn’t say a word. He listened to the whole record. And then at the end of the record, he said, “We can’t sell this.”

AZ: And you thought it was brilliant?

RC: I did. I thought it was my best work. I said, “What do you mean?” He goes, “Country radio is not going to play this.” And he left. And I literally got dizzy. I leaned against the wall, and I said to Roger Nichols, who was the engineer, “He’s wrong. I’m going to prove him wrong.” 

Well, he was right. Country radio would not play it. I was on a plane, about three months later—nothing had happened with the record. They weren’t promoting it. Radio wasn’t playing it. I was so depressed about it. I was looking out the window on the plane, and I thought, What am I going to do? I have to leave. My marriage had fallen apart. The record had fallen apart. And I thought, I’m going to move to New York.

I didn’t ask very much advice from my dad back then, and I wish I had asked more, but that was one thing I asked him about. I called and I said, “Dad, what should I do? I’ve run into a wall. I don’t belong here. This is going to get worse, because I’m not going back to making King’s Record Shop. And I love New York.” He goes, “To hell with them. Move to New York.” He said, “That’s where you belong.” So I did. And then, my entire life fell apart.

AZ: Right when you got here.

RC: Oh, my god. It was so painful. The divorce was so painful. I found an apartment. My two older girls stayed to finish out the school year in Nashville. I took the baby with me, the two-year-old. I was devastated. I didn’t know what to do. I was mugged. I did a lot of stupid things living there that I hadn’t done as a visitor.

AZ: Nothing was clicking.

RC: Nothing was clicking yet, except that I loved being there.

AZ: Did you have the community here when you came here?

RC: Not a large one. I knew a few people. I was devastated by the divorce. My kids were devastated. It was just awful. My little one, the two-year-old, I enrolled at Barrow Street Nursery School, and she was anxious. I had to sit there in nursery school every day with her. I couldn’t—

AZ: The whole day?

RC: The whole day. [Laughs]

AZ: So you were also going to nursery school while you were…. You were attending nursery school as a new New Yorker, recently divorced, having trauma after trauma every day, because New York can be like that.

RC: Yes. I had a guy throw a rock at me once on the street.

AZ: Just ’cause.

RC: Yeah. It was just endless, endless, endless. So I was sitting in nursery school one day—

AZ: While New York’s falling apart, by the way.

RC: Yes.

AZ: This is at the moment New York is having its worst moments since the late seventies.

RC: Yeah. It’s really bad. The blackouts, the garbage strikes, everything. So I was sitting in nursery school one day, just going, “What the fuck is happening with my life?” They had this guy, Ivan, come in once a week to play music with the kids: [sings] “Peanut, peanut butter. And jelly!” So I was sitting there, watching him tune his guitar before he played “Peanut Butter and Jelly.” He couldn’t get it tuned, and out of a daze, I said, “It’s your D string.” And he looked up at me like, “Who are you? You’re just some mom in nursery school.”

AZ: “And she has a shelf full of Grammys, and a bunch of number one hits.” But of course, you hadn’t said that. [Laughs]

RC: Yeah. So he tuned his D string, and then afterwards he said, “Who are you?” “I’m Rosanne Cash. I go to nursery school.” 

I was really also devastated about Interiors, that it hadn’t done what I thought it could do. But actually, I gained a whole new audience with Interiors, and it was nominated for a Grammy. Lost to John Prine that year, and I was actually glad it did, because if I had won instead of John Prine, and his album The Missing Years that would have been awful. So I went to the Grammys, and he won. It was fun. But it didn’t sell, not even a fraction of what King’s Record Shop had sold, and I’d lost a lot of the King’s Record Shop audience, who were like, “Oh, well, she’s not country anymore. I don’t care.”

AZ: She’s talking about her real self.

RC: Yeah. And not only that, it’s uncomfortable; it’s dark. And then Robert Christgau, in The Village Voice, he wrote this review and said it was a divorce record. That embarrassed me, kind of. Like, Is it that obvious? So Interiors weighed heavily on me, not nearly as much as the divorce and the kids obviously, but it was there. My lack of a real vibrant, expansive community, everything.

AZ: And a belief, like you think about Carole King’s Tapestry or something. Like a pop record that was sort of about … which doesn’t get anywhere near—I mean, it’s an incredible record obviously, but it’s not actually that tender in that way, or that—

RC: Raw.

AZ: That deep, honest, raw interior.

RC: Yeah. By the way, I love Tapestry.

AZ: It’s an incredible record. But people want that to be the divorce record rather than the real version.

RC: Right. Right. Maybe that’s true. But I cannot tell you how many people have come up to me since—this is decades later—and said, “Oh, that record got me through my divorce.” Which is kind of awful, but also great. It was an honor. 

So, I get on the subway one day—this is after being in New York for several years. And it was before MetroCards. You still had to use a subway token. And it was before really sleek cell phones. I had a first-generation, ten-pound cell phone in my purse. I get out of the subway at Columbus Circle, and it’s pouring rain. It hadn’t been raining when I got on. I didn’t have an umbrella. I reach in my purse to go into a deli to buy an umbrella. I’ve left my wallet at home, and I’ve just used my last subway token.

And at that moment—I’m standing there miserable, rain pouring on me—and at that moment, my cell phone rings. I said, “Hello?” Just kind of miserable. And this voice said, “Rosanne, it’s Al Gore.” I said, “Mr. Vice President, how are you?” He said, “I’m at The Lowell. Could you come over for lunch? I want to talk to you about this environmental event I’m doing, and I’d love for you to perform at it.” I start thinking really quickly: I have no money. It’s raining. If I walk to The Lowell, I’m going to look like a drenched rat by the time I get there. So I made up some excuse. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I can’t come now. Can we talk about this on the phone later?” I hung up and I thought, I just turned down the vice president of the United States to do an event with him. New York has kicked my ass. That’s it.

AZ: To talk about saving the world, by the way. [Laughs]

RC: To talk about saving the world. I turned him down to help him save the world because I don’t have a subway token, or a wallet. That’s when I thought, It’s kicked my ass—I wonder if I can survive. Well, that’s the moment you become a true New Yorker, isn’t it? When you just give up. You go, “I love you so much. You can do anything to me, and I’m going to stay. You’re not going to get rid of me.” 

It wasn’t long after that [that] I got in a taxi, the driver glances at me in the mirror, and then pulls away from the curb. He’s quiet for a minute, and then he kind of nods to himself. He said, “Roseanne Cash. I reviewed Interiors for Rolling Stone.” He said, “It should have been the lead review.” [Laughs]

AZ: It’s so extraordinary. I think the best part of that story is, “It should have been the lead review.” Because the second you think that it’s about you here, you realize it’s not. It was about him being upset that his review got pushed down.

RC: [Laughs] I know. But then the guy went really dark on me. I told this story at The Moth, but I didn’t tell this part of the story. He got really dark on me and was like, “I got really disillusioned about music, and writing about music, and now I’m driving a taxi.” I reached my hand through the window, and I grabbed his hand, and I said, “Don’t give up on loving music.” Then a friend, later, Bill Flanagan, who’s a music writer, heard that story, knew the guy, and contacted him—this is also years later—and the guy said, “Yeah, she grabbed my hand. That meant the world to me.” You never know, do you? You never know what kind of ripple you send out into the world. He sent one for me, maybe I gave a little smaller one, but one for him.

AZ: Well, Lyle Lovett once said,“Rosanne’s writing is perfectly in sync with her life.” 

RC: What a nice thing to say.

AZ: He goes on to say, “What makes her special as a writer is what makes her special as a person—she’s thoughtful, sensitive, perceptive.” And in connection to that story, you wouldn’t be able to write if you didn’t have a certain presence in your life. Like, to be there for real, in all moments. Do you think New York is what has been a forcing function, in a way, to you being absolutely present?

RC: Absolutely. It’s one of the reasons I moved here. The vibration of it—you gotta stay in that vibration. You can’t get out of it. Also, it causes me anxiety to get too far in the future or too far in the past. And also, it’s very hard to be creative when you’re not paying attention to what’s going on around you or what’s happening in your inner world at that moment. And also, the other part of that is far more mundane in a way, which is that I have a really strong competitive spirit. And I have a lot of friends who are writers and artists, visual artists, and more, who are working at the top of their game. It’s inspiring, and it inspires my competitive nature.

AZ: And you also have a lot of friends who do other things.

RC: Yeah.

AZ: Maira Kalman. You’ve spoken about your friend who’s a physicist.

RC: Yeah. Lisa Randall.

AZ: Lisa Randall. Does New York also offer that sort of interdisciplinary thinking where, if you were just in Nashville and all you knew were musicians, would your music be better? Or do you need to be with people that aren’t musicians?

RC: I need to be with people who aren’t musicians. Visual artists in particular inspire me a lot, because I have a visual component when I’m writing. Some songs have started with an image, like my song “I Was Watching You.” It started with this picture of a car, in Texas, on a dusty road. The whole song came from that. A lot of times, that happens. And talking with visual artists, and experiencing it, it’s super inspiring. In fact, I wish I was a visual artist sometimes. I wish I was a painter, I wish I was Maira. Maira is one of my heroes.

AZ: She’s amazing.

RC: Amazing. And there’s a lot of other—

AZ: And [Chelsea], this neighborhood. I mean, we both live in this neighborhood, and I don’t know about you, but the reason that we live here is that we see a lot of shows. We’re going to the corner store, and we pop in [to an art gallery] because it’s on the way. And I wouldn’t want West Chelsea to be a destination in New York on a Sunday or a Saturday. I’d want it to be part of the fabric, because we’re so fortunate that we can walk down this series of blocks and see—there are three, four thousand galleries in this neighborhood.

RC: I know, right? When I moved to this neighborhood, there weren’t that many. It was maybe twenty or something. But yeah, to be surrounded by it? It’s an overabundance. Sometimes I do get anxious. Like, I’m not going to be able to take this all in. I’m not going to be able to read all the books I want in the time I have left on this earth. I’m not going to be able to see all the art I want. Did you hear about this Van Gogh immersive experience coming up? I just bought tickets for that.

AZ: It was down in Florida before, and it’s coming up.

RC: Oh, it was?

AZ: Yeah. It’s going to be amazing.

RC: Yeah. I can’t wait.

AZ: Yeah, there’s so much. I mean, and one of the beautiful things about this particular neighborhood is, I don’t need to experience a show fully. I can go in and look at one piece and leave.

RC: Ditto.

AZ: That’s it. And if it catches me fine, if not, that’s okay, too. I was on my way to the bodega, actually. This was on the way, which is kind of wonderful, and fortunate.

RC: [In 2017], I went to see this show  by Portia Munson [at P.P.O.W. gallery] here in Chelsea, and her work moved me so much. It’s really feminist work. She did this thing called the “Pink [Project],” which is all Barbie dolls and tutus and tampon boxes—just all pink, this huge room. I went, “Oh, my god, this is insanely great.” And then she does these things with nature and dead birds. And she had done this tree with rose petals [called “Tree Knife Elbow” (2015)], and the tree was an actual bone and a knife. I just called her up out of the blue. I didn’t know her. I said, “Would you consider doing an album cover?” And so my last album [cover], She Remembers Everything, is [by] Portia.

AZ: Because she hits something that you also hit, which is the logical, the obvious, on one level, and then the very nebulous, which is I think why people connect to your work at different times in their life in different ways. You could listen to Interiors as a twenty-five-year-old and not really understand it. I remember, when I saw Eyes Wide Shut when it came out, I didn’t get it. And I was a huge [Stanley] Kubrick fan. I talked to my dad about it, who loves movies, and he said, “Oh, it’s incredible. I think it’s his best film. It’s amazing.” And I said, “I don’t get it.” And he said, “Let’s talk in thirty years, after you’ve had a marriage and….” 

I think about that with your work: how, when you visit it at different moments in your life, you have very different experiences, and you’re able to write on multiple levels. Your most successful work has that. And her visual work has that as well. When I think about that, I think, Are you consciously creating that space? Some artists—sonic, visual, whatever—fill the full space, and you have to meet it there. This idea of the volumetric in work.

RC: Oh, that’s a great way to put it. I don’t like to fill the space, for the same reason I don’t like to over-explain a song, or say where it came from, or what that line means, or why I used that word. Because then it takes away the part of the space that you will fill, the listener. And I love music like that for the same reason. I don’t necessarily want to know the background. You have to allow your audience that. It’s kind of a show of respect, to [allow them to] fill part of it with their own experience and their own needs, actually, and their own subjectivity. But that doesn’t mean that I purposely try to confuse people at all.

AZ: No, I think the reason it’s successful is, it has a very clear front door in the story. You can follow something that’s going on. But everything also has multiple meanings the more you think about it, and the deeper you go into it.

RC: That’s an incredible compliment. Thank you. Will you write my next bio? [Laughs]

AZ: Sure. [Laughs]

Also, connected to this, you’ve compared making albums to making sculptures. This is something we talked about ten years ago, when we sat down for the book Music. I don’t know if this has changed for you since that time, but do you feel that the music is coming from you, or through you? I know that sounds a little cliché. But in the way that sculpture is a process that happens, that you build upon, that you didn’t necessarily know where you were going to get to?

RC: I never know where I’m going to get to. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Sometimes I see the end result and I don’t know how to get there. But oftentimes I start something, and I don’t know what the end result is. That’s a part of every creative process—painting, even cooking, for people who drop the recipe and just make something up on their own. I can’t tell you how many songs I’ve started and I didn’t know [where they would go], except for “The Killing Fields.” It’s not the only one, but that one, I knew what I wanted to write about. I had no idea how to convey what I wanted to convey. I wrote the first verse for another song.

AZ: Oh, wow.

RC: The part about John coming over on a Brooklyn ferry and me being at the other ocean. I thought I was going to write something about our lives. And then, as I was writing, after the first verse, I took that first verse from the other song I was writing, during the Black Lives [Matter] protests, and I went, “Oh….” And then it was like a … what do they call that when a piece of the ground falls open? A sinkhole.

AZ: A sinkhole.

RC: It was like a sinkhole opened. I went into this dark, dark place in the past, in my own ancestral DNA. And my grandparents were there, and the lynchings in Arkansas. Man, it was painful. And then, I saw myself coming up. I looked up who the patron saint of Scotland was. Saint Margaret—she’s one of them. And because my Cash ancestry is Scottish, I thought, I’m going to put her at the edge of the field, and that’s how I’m going to pull myself up. So it had a shape to it. The song had a definite shape. But I didn’t know how I was going to fill it in. I knew it was going to be in the tradition of an old folk song, where it was just multiple verses, and there were no choruses. That’s really all I knew in the beginning of writing it, when I wrote that first verse.

AZ: Wow. And I thought about how it was connected to [The] River and [the] Thread.

RC: Yeah, totally.

AZ: Which is this series of songs that you and your husband wrote in a car, I guess.

RC: A lot of them we started in the car, driving through the South, through Mississippi, Arkansas

AZ: What brought about that trip? Why were you in the South driving?

RC: For a couple of reasons. The main one was that Arkansas State University bought my dad’s boyhood home, which was in a New Deal–era colony in Dyess, Arkansas.

And this colony was five hundred houses and there were twenty-five left. My dad’s was one of them, but it was so close to being in the ground, done. Arkansas State University got it, and they wanted to restore it. They had to raise funds, so they asked the family to be involved. I don’t get involved in many of those projects around my dad. I get asked all the time. And I thought, This one I definitely want to be involved in, because it’s not about his iconic image; it’s about the essence of who he was. And my own ancestry. And my kids need to know this. 

On the first trip down, the first show we were going to do—Marshall Grant, who was my dad’s bass player starting in the fifties, and who always reminded me that he was the third person to hold me after I was born, and I stayed close to him my whole life—he died on that first trip. We were sitting in the hotel bar after rehearsal. He had a stroke that night, and died. It devastated me, and it kind of broke my heart open, to not only him, but to the South. I can’t even explain why.

Then John said to me, “We could write about this.” And Etta, [Grant’s] wife, said to me, she said, “We got up every morning and said to each other, ‘What’s the temperature, darlin’?’” And John goes, “Oh, my god, that’s the first line of a song.” So I wrote the lyrics to “Etta’s Tune.” John wrote the music. It started from there. 

Then we started going back a lot, driving through the South: Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama. My friend, Natalie Chanin in Florence, Alabama, sews these beautiful, couture-level clothes. She said to me, “You have to love the thread,” as she was giving me a sewing lesson. So I just took that line, and I wrote the lyrics to “A Feather’s Not a Bird.” It ended up winning three Grammys. It was a big deal for me. And it was also a closure to my own Southern history that I had pushed away for decades.

AZ: And how your dad was all wrapped into that. Other people’s perception of who your dad was, which was always very different. That’s an example of a character perspective, in a way. That’s a concept record. And then, you’ve also written, obviously, Interiors, some very personal things. And She Remembers Everything is a very personal record, obviously, and about urgency, in a way.

RC: And time. About time.

AZ: Which is what this podcast generally is about. That’s why it’s called Time Sensitive. It’s sort of our perspective on life through the lens of time.

RC: Well, time feels shorter and more urgent. And like Maira Kalman says, “It is the most precious thing.” What is the most precious thing? The most precious thing is time. I felt the weight of it so much when I was writing the songs for She Remembers Everything. Everyone around me was going, “You got to make another record, just like The River and the Thread. It was so successful. People loved that.” I thought, That is exactly what I don’t want to do. I want to write a record about a woman my age, my experience, my sense of time, my grappling with trauma, the past, loss, romance, being a woman at this particular time in the world. I wrote it pre–#MeToo movement, but it was in the air.

AZ: It couldn’t have been more prescient, which just, obviously, the most personal becomes the most universal, like the song, “Everyone But Me”— 

RC: Yeah. That song still breaks my heart.

AZ: Fading into dust, about a relationship with a parent, which was incredibly personal and, like I was saying, unbelievably universal. But on a political level, the [Brett] Kavanaugh hearings coming out with She Remembers Everything…. I know that wasn’t the intent—it came after—but when the Kavanaugh hearing started, that was three years ago, what realizations were you having about what you had just done?

RC: That was almost more devastating than the election of Donald Trump. Every woman I know—we were all texting each other, calling each other, emailing in tears. It was horrifying. My daughter called me crying when Trump was elected and said, “I feel like I don’t matter.” And other times, too: “I feel like I don’t matter.” It doesn’t matter what we say, what we went through. Accountability has no place in politics. It was mind-boggling. It was just like one insult and catastrophe on top of another. That was felt viscerally. It rattled my body.

AZ: Why is a woman’s memory not trusted?

RC: Why is a woman’s memory not trustworthy? And she remembers everything. Where did I read this? I can’t remember… that when an old woman dies, a library is burned. I’m sure that’s the same with a man, too. But we were trying to give more agency to ourselves, all the women I knew. And in writing that record, I was saying, “I still have a lot to say.”

AZ: It’s interesting—I’m sorry, to just stop you real quick. When you say that a man is too, it’s almost like “All Lives Matter.” It’s like, it doesn’t matter that also men have memory.

RC: Well, I had to say that.

AZ: I know you did, but I just want to be clear that what’s relevant about this, and what’s relevant about She Remembers Everything, and at that moment was, we don’t have to remind us that men have memory. In that moment, it was just so explicit.

RC: So explicit. I mean, it was just painful on so many levels. And because I have daughters…. Do you know my son was applying for college during all of that going on? He had to answer these questions: “If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?” And he said, “Sexism.” He said, “Because I have a mom and four sisters, and I see what it does to them.” Oh man, that just—it gave me so much hope. That precious little dude.

AZ: It’s a different generation.

RC: It’s a different generation. They get it.

AZ: They really do. It’s phenomenal. Maybe it’s because of how explicit that was. We watched Brett Kavanaugh say, “I don’t remember. How do you expect me to remember?” I mean, we’re talking about someone who sits on the Supreme Court.

RC: Forever.

AZ: Forever. At a moment when that’s very scary. What that came down to was, “I don’t remember. You can’t expect me to remember,” became conflated with, “So her memory must not be correct.”

RC: Right.

AZ: Which was so odd, but it was at a time when we just didn’t understand what the hell was going on. Directionless panic.

RC: Directionless panic!

AZ: That’s a Christian Madsbjerg word. He talks about—

RC: That’s really good.

AZ: It’s a German thought, scheuer. I can’t remember the word. But it really represented, and he had told me this—this friend I just mentioned—during that time. He said, “That’s what we’re feeling. We’re feeling directionless panic.”

RC: All the men I knew were second-guessing themselves. All the really decent, good men, all second-guessing themselves. Some of them would come to me and go, “I did this. I flirted with this woman, and she wasn’t into it.” I said, “Did you touch her? Did you press her? Did you attack her?” “Well, no.” I said, “Come on, you’re allowed to ask somebody out, to go out with you.” Harvey Weinstein, and the beginning of all of that, was all going on at once. We were watching this on the news, and my husband said, “I don’t know any men like that.” I said, “Of course you do. You just don’t know that you know them.”

AZ: They don’t talk about it.

RC: Right.

AZ: But it’s interesting. You bring up the conversation, “Of course, all of my friends.” That conversation came up, like, “Did I…?” Because at the same time what we’re talking about is a certain cancel culture that’s necessary in a time of change, you know, radical overcorrection, but at the same time, that happens with any change, and it reverts back. It snaps back. But this idea that you can be tried for something when societal norms were different, like a sort of retroactive, something I did twenty years ago, a text I wrote twenty years ago.

RC: Yeah. Oh man, I remember thirty-five years ago—it still troubles me—laughing at a racist joke because I was nervous and I wanted to be part of the crowd, you know, what I’m thinking? That still comes across my mind every couple of months, like, How could you do that? And I feel so much shame about that.

AZ: But at the same time, isn’t that what this is all about?

Cash in 2015. (Photo: Clay Patrick McBride)

RC: Yes. Exactly. Reviewing your actions, changing your behavior, waking up, becoming more conscious, more empathy, more sympathy. Yeah. That’s what it’s about. I mean, John said to me, he said, “I need to be taught. I don’t get some of this.” 

AZ: When we talk about the self, and how it evolves over time, how it holds together, what are the binders for you? How are you thinking about the self now? What is keeping it together? You sometimes hear people put it as the “coherent self” when you’re complete, when you feel that’s me, like you in the mirror, with the green jacket. Now, years later, integrating all of these experiences, processing it through your music, what do you think it is that binds you together so strongly now at this point in your life?

RC: With the South? Well, you know how, in middle age, you start getting on and you start wanting to know who you come from, and the origins of your name. I found out that I have so many ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War on both sides. So the sense of belonging—where do I belong? Who am I from? What geography is in my DNA? What do I respond to? I’m a New Yorker through and through, but I was born in Memphis, really proud of that, into that hot stew of music in 1955 in Memphis. Hey, I’ll take some ownership of that! That’s super cool.

There’s so much of the South I still love. The beauty, the redemption, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Howlin’ Wolf, my dad, B.B. King…. Look at the music and the poetry and the literature that came out of just the Delta. Don’t even go to New Orleans yet—just the Delta. It’s like, “Oh, there’s nothing more American than that.” And so, ownership as an American, as a Southerner by birth, all those things I denied and pushed away. There’s more of a sense of peace about myself [now] that I embrace them. It’s not to say I have any kind of rose-colored glasses about the South. There’s still so much that’s troubling.

AZ: Yeah. And now, you seem to be at the best moment of your life, like, fully coherent of the self. And before I let you go, I wanted to bring up a speech [in 2018] that you gave at the Americana Music Festival [when you were honored with its “Spirit of Americana” Free Speech Award]. You said, “I have a surplus of righteous indignation, and I’m too old to care about it anymore.” What did you mean by that?

RC: I’m too old to care what people think about it anymore. My righteous indignation is around gun violence, it’s around race, it’s around the woman’s place in the world. And I have to say it. I have to say it, whether that’s right or wrong, whether anybody gives a damn, whether I personally say it or not. It’s like my daughter told me recently, when I was thinking of writing another piece on gun violence. She goes, “Mom, nobody wants to hear from you about it anymore. They know what you think. They need to hear from some hard-core country-music guy who changed his mind.” And that’s absolutely true.

At the same time, I can’t keep showing up for the things—I mean, I have to keep showing up for the things I believe in. And you know how Martha Graham said, “Even if you yourself don’t believe in your own work, you still have to do it, because the world has to have it. It’s how the world keeps turning.” We have to put our work in the world. I mean, there are so many times still, I think, I’m a fraud. My work is surface. My songs aren’t as good as Lucinda [Williams]’s. Why do I bother? I’m a terrible guitar player. On and on and on. And that’s just part of it. That’s part of being an artist. You come up against that, and you still show up, because you have to. The world needs it.

AZ: I’ll end there.

RC: Okay.

AZ: Thank you, Rosanne.

RC: Thank you


This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on April 22, 2021. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by our executive editor, Tiffany Jow. This episode was produced by our managing director, Mike Lala, and sound engineer Pat McCusker.