Four decades after releasing her first record, Rosanne Cash still defies stereotypes. In a year when many country stars choose to remain silent on issues ranging from the NRA to gender equality, the 63-year-old singer writes op-eds about preventing gun violence, leads advocacy and social-justice efforts (she helped promote the Music Modernization Act into law in September, and recently received a Spirit of Americana Free Speech in Music Award), and performs concerts across the globe. Her 14th studio release, She Remembers Everything, is a timely addition to a career studded with Grammy awards and a best-selling memoir.
The new album illuminates pivotal moments of women’s lives in ten songs set to atmospheric country-gothic textures that bridge genres and generations. The moody lead track, “The Only Thing Worth Fighting For,” is a collaboration with T Bone Burnett and Lera Lynn for the HBO series True Detective, and features vocals by Cash and the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy; Cash also co-wrote cuts with her producer–multi-instrumentalist husband John Leventhal, plus Elvis Costello, Kris Kristofferson, and Sam Phillips.
You launched She Remembers Everything with a live music performance as well as spoken-word appearances by Maria Popova, A.M. Homes, Staceyann Chin, and Jana Levi, who read written works by Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, and Ursula K. Le Guin. That’s a lot of woman power.
Yes, it [was] women reading both poetry and prose that connect to the songs, and the words were all by women writers. I had to put a stake in the sand. I can’t take it anymore.
When your song “Seven Year Ache” crossed over onto the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1981, I was 12 and heard it at a pool party. You were the first artist to make country cool for my generation. Today, there is a sort of sisterhood that connects you and Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams to younger genre-busting songwriters like Brandi Carlile, Kacey Musgraves, and Taylor Swift. What prompted you to defend Swift’s recent political “coming out” moment on Instagram?
I was thrilled she took the risk [to speak out in favor of Tennessee’s Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterm elections] because I get so much blowback and I couldn’t even imagine the blowback she’s gotten. She has a lot of integrity, and she’s self-sufficient. I was waiting for somebody with her clout to say something. Even though it was a simple endorsement and it was mostly about voting, it was hugely important. Did you see how many young people registered to vote after that? It was amazing. I thought it was an act of great social responsibility when she did it.
She Remembers Everything is similar to your 1990 album, Interiors, in that it explores social issues and the universal themes of womanhood. You’re a mom of five who had small kids back then, and you became a grandmother while finishing your latest record. Are the two albums checkpoints or bookends?
That’s smart! I honestly don’t think any of the men [journalists] would have gotten that. Interiors was an interior record but I was a lot younger and I could only go so deep. I hope [She Remembers Everything] is not a bookend. I hope it’s the opening of a new door. My youngest kid went off to college when I was making the record, so I don’t get up at 6:30 a.m. to get him to school anymore or try to be here when he gets home. I felt I could go a little further into madness when I didn’t have a child in the house to take care of. I could go into a dark place and stay there. I mean “My Least Favorite Life” is like a nightmare, and in some ways the song “She Remembers Everything” was a kind of letting go of the structure I had created for my life.
“8 Gods of Harlem” references both the #MeToo movement and your stance on gun control in the line, “We pray to the god of gunfire and regret” Is the song a rebuttal to politicians’ “thoughts and prayers” rhetoric about guns in America?
I didn’t think of it as a rebuttal, but that is a fair and accurate [assumption]. I just wanted to set the scene and make it raw and truthful so that all these children who are killed by gun violence aren’t nameless. Kris [Kristofferson] and Elvis [Costello] and I have been friends for many decades, and I just had this idea we could write a song together. We put a theatrical spin to it, where I am [the voice of the mother of the slain child], Kris is the father, and Elvis is the brother.
You’re a longtime New Yorker. Is it true you wrote “8 Gods” after you heard a woman mumble “ocho dioses” on the subway?
I was going down into the subway and she was coming up. She was clearly heavy-hearted, her forehead was creased, and she was talking to herself. I could have sworn I heard her say “ocho dioses.” I don’t speak Spanish, but then I was on the A train to Harlem and couldn’t get the phrase out of my head. I’ve worked as an activist against gun violence for a long time, so somehow I just made the connection.
You wrote the songs on She Remembers Everything before Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified at U.S. Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, but were there prior #MeToo experiences or news stories which informed the album?
Besides “8 Gods”? No, I think it’s more a matter of patterns and the feelings that have been inspired by everything in the headlines over the past few years — and also rage and hope and thinking about my daughters, all my kids really, which is the most painful part. One of my daughters called me after the 2016 election and said, “I feel like I don’t matter.” I felt like I didn’t matter, like women didn’t matter, and it’s gotten worse, not better. It’s like you can’t be trusted with your own memory. You can’t be trusted with your own body. It’s devastating. I have so much admiration for the women in the [#MeToo] movement who took the risk to speak out. I have my own stories, you know. I didn’t tell them publicly because I don’t think the specifics matter, but the story matters. We all carry those stories in our bodies.
I was writing the lyrics for Norma Rae [the musical] before [the focus on #MeToo] happened. It’s been a four-to-five-year process, which is now infused with a new kind of energy. The show is set in 1973, but there are certain scenes and moments the director changed [to have resonance in 2018]. All of the sensitive men around me are getting a crash course in how they think about women and how women should be treated, even though these men are clearly not overtly sexist. I mean, even my own husband [John Leventhal] said, “I’m really getting an education.” At the beginning of the #MeToo movement, he told me, “I don’t think I know any men who would do these things.” I said, “Yes, you do. You just don’t know that you don’t know.”
You’re very supportive of women, especially fellow musicians. Yet, you’ve spent a lot of time in your career recording and performing with men — from Bruce Springsteen and your ex-husband Rodney Crowell to Jeff Bridges and Jeff Tweedy. Was that ever an intentional move on your part, in order to be viewed as an equal?
I always had this sense that I was as good as the boys. I never liked the notion of “women songwriters” and “women musicians.” I just felt that wasn’t fair. You shouldn’t make a subset for women so that you can judge them differently. When I started out [in the 1970s] there was — and still are — far more men who are producers and lead guitar players and engineers than there were women. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about my own kind of personal feminist movement, I just assumed I could do what men did. When my album The River & the Thread came out [in 2014], I was a little embarrassed, because even though Allison Moorer and Catherine Russell sang on it, someone said, “Don’t you know any women musicians?” I went, “Oh shit!” And I started looking at it because I’d never thought about [making music] as being like a Fortune 500 company or U.S. Congress, where it should be 50 percent women. It’s like you just work with the people you work with. I don’t know, maybe I’ve been wrong about that all along.
Or maybe you’ve been right because you’re not limiting yourself? You co-wrote the title track “She Remembers Everything” with respected singer and songwriter Sam Phillips. How did that come about?
We share a publisher and he suggested Sam and I write together. I love her as a writer. I was in L.A. by myself doing something, and I called and asked her for a date. She goes, “Perfect. Sara Watkins is playing at Largo, let’s have dinner and go see Sara.” So we did and we talked and talked. Later, I wrote the lyrics to “She Remembers Everything” and sent them to [Sam]. A few months later, she sent them back [with the music] and I loved it. When I took the song to Tucker [Martine, the song’s producer, whose credits include R.E.M. and My Morning Jacket] I didn’t quite know how we were going to interpret it with the band, but we fleshed out an idea that was pretty close to the arrangement in his head. Of course, Sam had to sing on it.
I can’t think of many other writers whose songs look at personal relationships across a continuum of life the way that the uptempo “Not Many Miles to Go” does. You don’t write compartmentalized verses about hookups or breakups. The words in this song are about you and John [Leventhal] and the gloriously messy span of a long, intimate partnership. Did you visualize this song as a timeline?
I couldn’t have written it when it was still all about lust and heartbreak and sex. John and I have been together 25 years, and it slowly begins to dawn on you that one of you is going to leave before the other. That is inevitable and it’s incredibly sad. And so I started looking around for the touchstones of our life — you know, the things that had repeating resonance for us and are constants, like his Telecaster [guitar] which is always there, his glass of bourbon at the end of the day, how he complained for years about my sense of rhythm, like, “Honey, the tempo! Watch your time!” The song, “Crossing to Jerusalem,” is also about the same subject matter, but it’s more about the one thing you’ll take with you when you leave. The last verse is about seeing towns through tiny airplane windows and the stages and hotel rooms we’ve wandered through together around the world.
“Crossing to Jerusalem” also follows a historical line of songs with Jerusalem in the title — including the English church hymn with lyrics borrowed from a William Blake poem and music by Hubert Parry which also became an anthem for the women’s suffrage movement in the 1920s. Is there any particular significance for you in the meaning of Jerusalem?
I have song lyrics on my phone, and I kept thinking, What is this song about? I just liked the way the word “Jerusalem” rolls off the tongue. Then I thought, Oh, Jerusalem is the other side. Jerusalem is leaving the planet. I was doing an interview with a German writer the other day and he had a really hard time with that idea. I said,”‘No, no, no. The song’s not about religion.” I don’t really believe in heaven or hell, but there is another side. Energy doesn’t die.
I don’t believe we’re on the planet just to experience happiness. We all tend to push away from pain and suffering. You know, it’s not comfortable, but pain is half of life. I mean, nobody escapes that. I know it sounds trite, but I wanted to recognize that there can be beauty in suffering.
In “The Undiscovered Country,” you sing about Shakespeare and your father “who kick dust up in my dreams” and then follow it up a few lines later with the sentiment, “It’s my turn, I won’t look back.” The song alludes to the sacrifices women make for each other and for future generations. Tell me about the writing process.
For months, I labored over the lyrics to “The Undiscovered Country.” I was determined I was going to write the music myself because I felt that the song is a sort of mission statement. The past, the future, the woman who walks along the sea is the savior we didn’t embrace — whoever she is, whether she’s Hillary [Clinton] or whether it’s us. I wrote four different melodies for it. All of them are still on my phone. I finally thought, “John would know how to write the music to this, he’ll find it,” and he did very quickly. So I just had to give up whatever hubris or territoriality I have about songwriting and do what was best for the song. Ultimately, that’s what [a songwriter wants], right?
I remember first seeing Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash as guest stars on the 1970s TV series Little House on the Prairie rather than as country music legends on a stage. You’re proud of your family — your previous three albums [2014’s Grammy-winning The River & the Thread, The List (2009), and Black Cadillac (2006)] honored your relationships with your parents [including your mother, Vivian Liberto Cash], as does your new ballad, “Everyone But Me.” Does it annoy you when music journalists focus more on your heritage than your music? She Remembers Everything feels like the final straw.
You’re absolutely right. The album is so profoundly a female narrative and a woman’s long story. If the takeaway from it is that I’m Johnny Cash’s daughter, I just … I’m gonna snap. Because it’s so sexist to keep defining women by the men they’re related to, no matter how famous those men are. Particularly since I’ve been doing this for 40 years. People have to stop [writing about] who my parents are.
This interview has been edited and condensed.