Rosanne Cash charms on opening night with music, prose, & stories.
Rosanne Cash opened the Miami Book Fair to a crowd of slightly less than 200 people last night, while, ironically, Taylor Swift performed before thousands a few blocks away at the American Airlines Arena.
I say “ironically” not as a dig at either Cash, who gave a charming, low-key talk with a song or three, or at Swift, a young country-pop singer-songwriter whose star is just reaching its apogee.
Miami Book Fair International continues this evening with humorist, reporter, travel writer and raconteur Calvin Trillin at 6, followed by humanitarian Dr. Paul Farmer at 8. For more information, visit the book fair’s website.
No, what makes it ironic is the direct line that can be drawn from Cash’s musical heyday — the 1980s — and Swift’s smashing success today. If not for the genre-bending trail Cash blazed back then as a singer, songwriter, and general strong female role model, things would have been a lot harder for Swift, no matter how talented she is.
Personally I can testify to Cash’s influence. When my three daughters were small, they had a fierce hunger for strong female figures to imitate. Playing Star Trek in the back yard, they used to make up new women characters because the show didn’t feature enough to suit them.
Rosanne Cash was one of their primary real-life role models. They listened to her songs with an intense joy and sang them together on road trips. One of those daughters, now 30 and a pretty strong young female herself, was with me last night to see and hear Cash.
I certainly expected Cash to draw a larger crowd. After all, she put out 14 albums, 11 No. 1 hits. Just last year her latest CD, The List, was named top Americana album of 2010. She’s also written a collection of short stories, published in the late 1990s, and a “non-linear” memoir, Composed, which came out last year.
In short, Cash is the kind of multi-tool artist who has an NPR page devoted to her — and I’ve always assumed considerable overlap between the NPR audience and the book lovers who swarm the book fair each year. Should we be worried about WLRN’s next fund drive?
Whatever the reason people may have stayed home, they missed, as book fair co-founder Mitchell Kaplan said afterward, one of the best author appearances in the fair’s 28-year history.
Cash was taller than she appears in pictures or on, say, Austin City Limits, and she carried her 56-years with a youthful grace. Her stage demeanor was one of shy confidence, born, I’d infer, of a sensitive soul come to terms with itself in a lost-and-found world.
Descended from country royalty — her father is Johnny Cash, her step-mother June Carter — Rosanne Cash opened by saying she has now been a songwriter for 32 years. “Deep in the back of my mind,” she said, “I thought I could write prose.”
Cash turned to writing essays and short stories in 1998, when she lost her voice for two years. She has successfully made the transition from Nashville hit maker to New York intellectual, with essays in The New York Times, Newsweek, New York Magazine and elsewhere.
One of those essays, Ties that Bind, about the role of family in early country and especially Appalachian music, directly resulted in her latest book. “My editor said that is the beginning of a memoir,” Cash recalls. “I said I’m too young to write a memoir.”
And nearly a decade passed — with another major personal crisis — before Cash became determined to weave her autobiographical essays into a coherent nonlinear memoir. She underwent brain surgery in 2007.
As she recovered from the ordeal, Cash considered what she would most want to accomplish if she knew her time on earth was at and end. Two things came to mind. First, to record an album distilled from her father’s list of 100 essential songs, which became the The List.
The other was to finish the manuscript that became Composed.
As she turned her attention to the memoir in earnest, Cash said, she was shown the way by reading M.F.K. Fisher, the great food writer who tends to include oblique elements of her own life into the food essays.
“I thought maybe I could write about my life by writing about the music,” Cash said.
Cash sat down to sing one of her songs, Sleeping in Paris, on a borrowed guitar, saying, “I hadn’t planned to do this.”
Her voice sounded as rich and true as always, with no sign she’d ever had trouble. Cash does not possess a huge vocal instrument, like, say Reba McEntire or Trisha Yearwood, but she has a distinctively expressive tone that sounds like no one else. She makes her own kind of artistry with it.
Telling affectionate stories about her father, her stepmother, and her mother’s devotion to Patsy Cline, Cash also read selections form Composed to an entranced audience.
She read a beautiful brief piece about visiting a French record shop, where the owner did not recognize her and gave her advice on which Rosanne Cash albums were good (he favored King’s Record Shop) and which were “terrible.” She revealed herself by holding the album up to her face, after which they laughed, he apologized, and they had a drink to talk about music.
“They are all me,” Cash read, “the good and the bad.”
Cash sang a sweet cover of Bob Dylan’s Girl from the North Country, which Johnny Cash recorded as a duet with Dylan in 1969. She ended with her signature song, Seven Year Ache, a break-out country-pop hit in 1981. It was written when Cash was 23, only a little older than Swift is now.
All in all, Cash’s appearance was a lovely opening to the book fair, which continues tonight with reporter, true-crime writer, humorist, food writer, travel writer, and deadpan raconteur Calvin Trillin at 6, followed by humanitarian Dr. Paul Farmer at 8. For a complete schedule, directions, and so forth, visit Miami Book Fair International.