Prose is another country

Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash broke free of the Nashville `treadmill', and her father's shadow, to become her own woman. OK, so it led to drugs and divorce. But now she's realised her lifelong ambition - to write. By Marianne Brace
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The Independent Culture
On Rosanne Cash's 10 Song Demo there's a track called "The Summer I Read Colette". It's hard to imagine another country singer turning a French novelist into a toe-tapping number. But then Cash - who counts George Eliot and Jeanette Winterson among her favourite authors - isn't like other country singers.

Despite having a string of hits and winning a Grammy for Best Country female vocalist, Cash has always wanted to be a writer. "That was my goal from the time I was a small child and it never really changed." Now she has achieved it with the publication of Bodies of Water, a short story collection which she describes as "a sort of dialogue" with the 10 Song Demo album.

"Most of the songs and stories were written within the same period. I'd get captured by an image. In one story, `Part Girl', there's a section called Bells and Roses. I couldn't let it go, so I wrote the song `Bells and Roses' too."

Cash, 41, has been in London promoting the book and performing at the Jazz Cafe with her husband and producer John Leventhal. Her former husband, singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, also used to produce her work. "That's how I got them," Cash says with a large smile. "I'd say, `You can produce my records, if you'd only just marry me.'" Such collaborations, she says, are "very romantic and intense".

In concert, with her mannish suit and guitar, Cash seems at ease: bantering with the punters, joking with her current husband-cum-producer. But, for years, Cash suffered from stage-fright. Even now, she says, "I get anxious and start putting pressures on myself. I tend to be a pretty obsessive person. I enjoy performing a lot, but not necessarily the 22 hours that go around it."

As the daughter of Johnny Cash, the "Man in Black", Rosanne made her debut at 18, singing backing vocals on tour. "It was nothing serious. Me and my step-sister came out and sang on one song." Since then, daughter and father have only duetted once - last November at a benefit for Rosanne's daughter's school. "It was sweet. There's a pretty big gap between us musically. He grew up in Arkansas, and I grew up in southern California's surfer culture - our influences couldn't be more different."

When Cash cut her first record, "I was ambivalent about it. I didn't want to take the chance of becoming successful and famous." Cash laughs. "Because, you know, in my history that wasn't a really great thing. It seemed to break up families and create a sense of loss. I remember, as a child, the timbre of my father's voice. It struck a deep chord in me. But the main definition of my father was by his absence. He was always on the road and he had a serious drug addiction."

Cash signed with Columbia as a country singer, although "I wasn't doing what I considered country music - Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, the hard- core stuff. I liked it as a child and then hated it as an adolescent." In Nashville Cash found herself "on this treadmill. I was making records. I was successful. I had 11 No 1 hits in the country charts." But after four years she "wanted out".

Nashville was too patriarchal. "There are Artistes and then there are Women, you know. I came from Los Angeles and had purple hair and a real attitude and I didn't get it. I felt myself in a strange way embraced because of my genealogy and ostracised because of my stance. And even though I was successful, they never really accepted me, because basically I didn't care about the ideology."

Cash released five albums in Nashville. "By 1984 I said, I'm not doing any more unless I write my material, because I wasn't doing what I wanted to do, my heart's desire." She got her way.

There's a clear autobiographical content in Cash's work. A hybrid of folk, pop and country, her songs are motored by strong emotions. "I hate the word confessional. It's not confessional, it's more journalistic in a way. Those things that are the most personal are the most universal." At 14, Cash had discovered Joni Mitchell: "She changed a lot of things for me. I thought that art and music were really the province of men, that a woman couldn't work out her life in public. But she wrote about her spirituality, sexuality and ambivalence."

The last of the Nashville albums, Interiors, documented the painful break- up of Cash's marriage to Crowell. It was followed by The Wheel, which dealt with the fall-out. Both were critically but not commercially successful. "They weren't radio friendly."

And so, after The Wheel, Cash stopped. "Failure gave me a lot of options. I was 38 and everything had changed. I'd just got divorced and, like the woman in Bodies of Water, I went to Paris and said, `What do I want? I want to write and I don't want to find myself on a tour bus when I'm 50.'"

Cash's are a song-writer's stories - something like extended lyrics. ("There's melody in prose. That's what I try to tune my ear to when I'm writing.") They are emotive and inward-looking, but occasionally hit the spot in their comic observations. A girl strikes an "I-won-an-Oscar-in- my-Maidenform-bra pose"; stress makes another's disastrous hair-do get "curlier by the second".

In her songs and stories Cash wrestles with the same demons. "Yeah, I do feel anxious about ageing," she admits. "When you're in your twenties, the possibilities are endless. There's a poignancy in letting them go." But as a singer Cash has never been better. "I don't have the stamina but my voice is actually at a very good place right now. I once had a teacher who told me a woman's voice reaches its prime at around 35 and can stay that way for 10 or 15 years."

Motherhood also features largely in Cash's work. Her daughters range from 17 to eight, their troubled adolescence the subject of her song "Child of Steel". "Motherhood has always been poison to rock 'n' roll," she observes, "because it's so anti-sexy. But there's a great deal of passion in mothering. Why should it be off-limits?"

Cash describes Bodies of Water as being about redemption. Women reclaim themselves through birth, loneliness, acceptance. And redemption, Cash knows all about. Thirteen years ago she was an addict.

"Cocaine was an escape, a way to feel more alive. My children saved me. I thought, What am I doing? and found myself in rehab. I look at it as the point when my life began again"n

`Bodies of Water' is published this month by Victor Gollancz, pounds 9.99