Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Rosanne Cash Black Deer Festival
Personal Best
Rosanne Cash

Ahead of her performance at the 2024 edition of Black Deer Festival this coming weekend, Rosanne Cash reveals to Alan Pedder the five songs she's most proud of writing.

Rosanne Cash grew up not wanting to be a singer but a writer. A writer could have a more private life, she thought, away from the spotlight that had kept her father, Johnny, far afield.

Ultimately, it was her desire to be closer to her dad that set her on the path to becoming a pioneer in her own right. In the five years between joining her father’s tour entourage in 1973, fresh out of high school, and recording her first demo in 1978, Cash went from backstage assistant to marquee name-in-waiting. Just three years later, she scored her first #1 album on the US country charts with Seven Year Ache. Borrowing from pop, rock and new wave, Cash’s attitudinal ‘punktry’ was a revolutionary masterstroke that shook 1980s Nashville out of its stupor.

Seven Year Ache kicked off a near-untouchable decade for Cash, yielding another three top 10 albums on the country charts – including the gold-certified King’s Record Shop, another rebellious masterwork – and her first Grammy for the slick hit single "I Don't Know Why You Don't Want Me" (ironically written in response to losing a Grammy two years earlier). But it was also a decade in which Cash was often deeply unhappy, stewing in an unravelling marriage to producer/collaborator Rodney Crowell while juggling the pressures of fame with being a mother of four. The spotlight she’d wanted to avoid was now on her, full-beam and unsparing.


At the dawn of the ‘90s, Cash took matters into her own hands, largely sidelining Crowell for the searing Interiors, pointedly her first self-produced album, and the first for which she wrote or co-wrote all the songs. Cash’s parents both loved it, but the record-buying public less so. “I really don’t care, to tell you the truth,” Cash told the LA Times the following year, with all the chutzpah of a woman quite content to raze her gilded palace. Divorcing Crowell and, at her dad’s behest, moving to New York, Cash was spiritually reborn. When she returned in 1993 with The Wheel, it was under the direction of her own inner compass and the influence of a new romantic and creative partnership with John Leventhal (pictured with Cash below).

That’s where our conversation picks up, ahead of Cash’s return to the UK for this coming weekend’s Black Deer Festival. More than 30 years later, she and Leventhal are still at the top of their game. There have been challenges – not least a vocal polyp that put her recording career on ice for years – but Cash’s six albums since The Wheel have only cemented her position as one of the most ambitious and well-respected artists in the Americana sphere.

Rosanne Cash John Leventhal

With her voice restored, the vivid and poetic Rules of Travel (2003) was the sound of Cash coming back into focus, which only sharpened with the grief-centered Black Cadillac (2006), written in the wake of an annus horribilis in which she lost her father Johnny and her stepmother June Carter Cash.

Covers album The List (2009), based on a real-life list compiled by her dad of essential country songs, became her highest-charting album ever on the main Billboard 200, only to be surpassed five years later by the philosophical, literary and character-driven album The River & The Thread, which earned her three more Grammys.

During that time, she became a mother again and honoured her original ambition to be a writer by authoring four books, including her celebrated memoir Composed. She and Leventhal are currently working on a follow-up to 2018’s She Remembers Everything, alongside putting the final touches to a Broadway musical based on the Sally Field-starring 1979 drama Norma Rae.

When it came to choosing the five songs she’s most proud of for her Personal Best, Cash says she looked to the ones that marked some kind of important or watershed moment for her as a songwriter. “I chose songs where I feel like I achieved something that I was aiming for, or at least where I feel like I got close to it,” she says. “I don’t know that I’ve ever 100% arrived at my vision of what a song could be, but I still keep reaching for it. I think the reaching and the dissatisfaction of not quite getting all the way there is part of the whole songwriting process.”

"The Wheel" (1993)

BEST FIT: It’s significant that we’re jumping right into your eighth album, The Wheel, which marked some profound changes in your personal life and ushered in what you might call your second act as an artist. Can you talk a bit about why you have chosen this particular song?

ROSANNE CASH: When I wrote “The Wheel” I felt this burst of energy, and by that I mean it was actually a very physical experience, writing that song. I felt like I was going to come out of my skin if I didn’t write it.

I’d had an idea for it that was sort of rolling around in my head. I remember I was at home with the kids one day, when they were quite young, and I called the babysitter and said, “If I don’t get an hour by myself I’m going to lose my mind. Can you come and watch the kids? I’ve got to go and work on something.”

When they came, I went and locked myself in what was basically a large closet and wrote the song. It was at a moment when I could see that my life was about to be turned inside out. My marriage [to Rodney Crowell] was falling apart. I had met John Leventhal and I’d had this instant, profound attraction to him. I just knew that he was my future. It was a kind of certainty that I’d never experienced before, and I wrote the song about him.

Writing that song was such an emotional experience as well, because it was the precursor to an enormous change and laid out a completely different path for the rest of my life. It’s really important to me. I see the song as a lynchpin.

Once you’d written the song, did you ever play it in front of Rodney?

I’ve never been asked that question, and honestly I don’t remember [laughs]. I doubt that I played it for him right away, because it was pretty obvious what it was about.

When the song came out, did you get a sense of how it was received by your fans?

Yeah, I did, and it was remarkable. I thought that the song was so personal, so it was remarkable to me that people took their own things from it. People would come up to me and talk about how it affected them. There’s one couple I know who were war journalists, embedded in a war zone, who listened to that song individually, and ended up getting married. They said they owed part of that to “The Wheel”. That’s probably the most dramatic story I’ve heard. It’s funny because if I don’t play “The Wheel” in concert, people do notice. Often they come up to me afterwards and say, “You didn’t play ‘The Wheel’!”

I didn’t play it live for a long time. I thought, ‘Well, it’s in the past,’ but I’ve started to play it again in my sets and it does seem to affect people. It still affects me too. Sometimes I’ll tear up a bit when I’m singing it, because it still has the resonance of that moment in my life. To play it with John, 30 years later, is a powerful feeling, you know? I sometimes feel outside of linear time.

When you took this song to John as a producer, did you tell him that it was about him?

I didn’t say that directly, but he knew it!

What are your memories of recording “The Wheel”?

When I recorded the demo for the song, before I took it to John, Steuart Smith came up with this remarkable guitar part that I’d say is virtually impossible for 99% of guitar players to play. It was such an important, huge part of the recording, so when John and I went into the studio we both knew we had to have Steuart come back in to play that part again. We also had Mary Chapin Carpenter and Patty Larkin come in to do background vocals, which was really great. The whole thing was a heightened experience for me.

Rosanne Cash The Wheel

"September When It Comes" feat. Johnny Cash (2003)

ROSANNE CASH: When I was writing “September When it Comes”, I had this constant background anxiety that my dad was gonna die. He was sick a lot, and was in and out of hospital, so I was living with this foreboding feeling.

I wrote the lyrics and left them lying around on a table in our house one day. John found them and told me that he’d love to put them to music, and he came up with this really beautiful folk melody for the song. We were talking and he said, “Well, if there’s ever a song that you’re going to ask your dad to sing on, this would be it.” At first I said no, because that was always my kneejerk reaction, to say “No, I don’t want people to think I’m using my dad. I don’t want to ask him to do this.”

But John kept pushing, saying, “Really, if there’s ever a time to do it, it’s now,” so I called my dad and said, “Dad, I’ve got this song and I’d love to have you sing on it.” He said, “I’d have to read the lyrics first,” and I laughed. I sent him the lyrics and he was like, “Yeah, okay, I can do that.”

BEST FIT: Did he talk to you about what he was connecting with in the lyrics that made him want to do it?

No, but he wasn’t like that. He was much more circumspect. He just got it and said he would do it. It wouldn’t have been in his nature to go deep into it. He was a great artist, and he thought like a great artist. There was no need to dissect it or explain it to him. He just said that he got it, and I knew that he did.

I had already recorded my vocal on the song and tracked it with John. We live in New York, but my dad was not well so I went to him in Nashville to record his part. The morning after I arrived he woke up and wasn’t feeling well. I said, “Dad, you really don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.” But he insisted, “No, I can do it. I want to do it.” So we went over to his studio, off in the woods.

As he sang it, I was standing behind the glass watching him with tears rolling down my face. We he finished he said, “Okay, well, you take that back to New York and if John says it’s not good enough I’ll do it again.” I was like, “Dad, it’s good enough, believe me. It’s really good enough.”

And, you know, the song turned out be prescient, because he died in September [about six months after the release of the album]. When Vice President Al Gore spoke at dad’s funeral, he referenced the song. So, for me, the importance of this song is multi-layered. It’s not only that my dad and I recorded it together, it’s also that the song I wrote was somehow so prescient about death, about the passage of time, about letting go of the past and waiting for those you love. Also, that this song was really a group project with me, my dad and my husband. It’s deeply, deeply important to me.

Is this a song that you’ve played live much? I imagine it’s not necessarily an easy one to sing.

I don’t play it much anymore. I used to, when it first came out, and sometimes I’ll play it when people call it out as a request. But it’s a hard place to revisit, and to do it alone feels a little… I don’t know. It’s a hard one, I have to say.

Rosanne Cash Rules Of Travel

"The World Unseen" (2006)

BEST FIT: Black Cadillac was the first album of yours that I heard, and this song just blew me away. It’s so mysterious and bittersweet. What makes this song earn its place among your Personal Best?

ROSANNE CASH: This is one of the songs where I feel like I came closest to achieving exactly what I was aiming for. When I started writing the song, so many people had died in my family. My dad had died. My stepmother, my stepsister, my aunt. There was this avalanche of loss.

I started writing it not long after my dad died, maybe a month or so. I had been reading him the Psalms in the last year of his life, because his eyesight had gotten really bad and he couldn’t read anymore. He liked to have the Psalms read to him. Now, I’m not a Bible reader or a Christian or follow any religion at all, but I realised through reading the Psalms to him that they are really so beautiful. There’s a line in one of the Psalms about being a sparrow on a roof, so I took that line as the start of the song – “I’m the sparrow on the roof” – and took it from there. When I was writing that song, I felt myself to be in some kind of liminal space, as if I was just outside of my body.

It got to around Christmas time and I was stuck on the chorus, trying to decide what it would be. I went with my kids to an Episcopal church service, which I always liked to do because the Christmas music was always so beautiful. I was sitting there and when they started to play that old carol that goes “Westward leading, still proceeding,” I thought, ‘Aha! That’s my chorus,’ so I took that line and fitted it into the song.

I love this song. I think I did really well on it, although there are a couple of lines that even now, sometimes when I’m singing it live, I think, ‘Oh, I could have done that one better,’ but mostly it’s all there. I remember, after Black Cadillac came out, I was in a grocery store in Manhattan and I ran into Elvis Costello. He leaned over the cheese section and said, “That song, ‘The World Unseen’, that’s as good as it gets.”

That’s a great story. What was your reaction?

I mean, I was deeply flattered. I valued Elvis’s opinion. I thought, yeah, on that one I almost hit the mark.

What I love about this song is that, despite being about, you know, the mystery of death, it has a hopefulness to it.

I think so, too. The song is not filled with despair. It’s bittersweet, and, you know, grief and hope can occupy the same space. I think that’s part of what makes the song work so well, because of that tension between grief and hope.

Did it surprise you at all, to discover this shared space?

No, because it's in my nature. I'm an optimist, but a melancholic optimist.

Rosanne Cash Black Cadillac

"When the Master Calls the Roll" (2013)

ROSANNE CASH: This song is important to me on several levels. The first being that I worked with both Rodney and John on it, which felt like some kind of coming full circle. Another thing is that I don’t usually write third person songs, but I think we did a good job doing that, which was really satisfying. I don’t usually write historical songs either, so that was something else that was new. I think it works well. I don’t think it was self-conscious in any way.

The song is about my own Civil War ancestors. It’s a fictionalised history, but it’s still history. I think there’s also an echo to the present time, with the lines “Can this union be preserved?” and “Let the union be made whole.” I sang this song the night before last and got tears in my eyes, thinking about what’s going on in the US right now. I feel violence is imminent and the division is profound. If I hadn’t stopped myself, I could have cried singing those lines. So, yeah, for me it’s not just a history song that’s frozen in the past. It has a resonance in the now.

BEST FIT: What are your memories of working on this song?

Well, it’s a song that I overheard Rodney and John playing backstage at this multi-artist show we were doing. They were still writing it, just sort of messing around. I didn’t know what the song was about but I heard the melody and said, ‘Oh, can I have that song?’ and they said, “No, we’re writing it for Emmylou!”

After a couple of years had gone by, and Emmylou had not recorded it, I went back to Rodney and suggested that we take John’s melody and that he and I could start over and rewrite some of the lyrics together, and write a song about my Civil War ancestors. He said, ‘Okay,’ and we kept the first verse, which came almost verbatim from a 19th century personals ad, and then the rest of it became about my ancestor William Cash, and Mary Ann Cash, another ancestor who was 20 years old at the start of the Civil War.

At first I didn’t know how the song was going to end, and I couldn’t get that out of my head. Like, where is this song gonna go? Then one day I was in the shower and then it hit me that the ending of the song would be William writing his own eulogy. Once I had that idea, the end of the last verse came to me: “Oh Virginia whence I came / I'll see you when I'm younger / And I'll know you by your hills again / This time from six feet under.”

When John heard us use the word ‘whence’ he said, “Oh, that makes me wince! Are you really going to use that word?” and I said, “Yeah, it’s period appropriate.” Rodney and I wanted to do that, because it was set in the distant past.

What was it about William and Mary Ann’s stories that compelled you to write about them?

Well, it was partly that John was encouraging me to write third person songs for that album, The River & The Thread. He said, “Don’t write about your feelings, write about characters,” and so I had that in mind. Also, out son Jake was doing a school project on the Civil War, and I went on to the Civil War database to show him that we had ancestors who’d fought on both sides, north and south. One thing led to another, really, and the story just started coming to me.

What do you remember about the recording session for this one?

I remember how much I loved singing it. Like, I loved it almost to the point of hoping that I wouldn’t get it right just so that I could sing it again.

I remember, too, that John and I thought the song needed some great voices in the background, so we asked Kris Kristofferson, Rodney, Tony Joe White, John Prine and Amy Helm if they would be the background chorus on the song. Amy did her part, and then I went down to Nashville, to Rodney’s studio, because Kris and Prine and Tony Joe White were all going to be in Nashville on the same day. I still look at photos from that day and think how incredible it was, because now Tony Joe White is gone, Prine is gone, and Kris has been in bad shape. So I think how beautiful it was to get all those guys, those old friends, together in one place at one time for this song.

Rosanne Cash River The Thread

"The Killing Fields" feat. John Leventhal (2021)

BEST FIT: Your roots are in the American South, and from what I can gather you’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking deeply about racism and advocating for change. Even long before this song about the terrible history of lynchings in Arkansas, which you wrote and recorded in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement having this big moment in 2020. What makes this song a special one for you personally?

ROSANNE CASH: As you say, I’d been thinking about these things for a long time, particularly the horrible history of racism in the south, where my own people came from. I was thinking about Arkansas and all the violence and suffering that had gone on there. I knew this woman who was a professor at the Arkansas State University, and we were talking one day about race relations when she said, “I keep a list on my computer of the lynchings in Arkansas, all the way back to the 19th century.” I asked her why and she said, “Because I just want to remember. I want to be reminded,” and that was really inspiring to me.

In 2019, John and I went down to Montgomery, Alabama, where they have the Legacy Museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the Freedom Monument Sculpture Park telling the stories of all the lynchings that had happened in the south. It was so powerful. It was literally life changing. When we left John said, “Every person who runs for elected office in this country should have to visit this museum first.” So, all that was on my mind, and then everything that happened with the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives Matter protests was really weighing on my heart.

From the beginning I had this idea for the structure of the song, which was that it wouldn’t have any choruses and be in the form of a narrative ballad. It would start in the present, kind of fall into an abyss into the past, and then come back up to the present with a renewed understanding of what had happened. So I had this structure and form in mind, and then I had to fill it in.

I thought it would be quite unexpected to start with our own stories, mine and John’s, so I wrote about how he was growing up on the east coast, working for his father in the Navy yard in Brooklyn, and how I grew up in a house of total chaos and everyday emergencies on the west coast. How did we ever find each other, right? Then, in the second verse, it goes immediately down to Arkansas and into my grandmother’s perspective, growing up with all the lynchings and violence that was all around her.

There’s an ancestral shame that I was dealing with, you know? I was really thinking a lot about what chains we have to break, like racism and violence, and what threads that bind us to the past are worth holding onto, like tenacity and hope for a better world. That’s what I was thinking about when I came up with the last verse that ends on the line, “All that came before us is not who we are now.”

Did you get a sense of how well people reacted to it?

I knew when writing this song that it wasn’t going to be a hit, and that nobody was going to play it on the radio. But I didn’t care. I was very clear eyed in what I was doing, which, for me, was like planting a very personal flag in the sand. I think I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish with this song. Or at least I came really close.

My friends and the people who heard it seemed to think it was really powerful. Their reactions were kind of staggering in some ways. But the song didn’t make a wider splash. I put it out as a 7” single and donated the money from the sales to the Peace and Justice Memorial Movement in Arkansas. It was just a few thousand dollars but I didn’t expect much more. It was a statement, and I think it’s a really well written song. I’m proud of it.

I hope more people will discover it now. I know that since 2017, and perhaps even earlier, you’ve been calling attention to racial issues within the Americana community, trying to get the community to shine more of a spotlight on and be more welcoming to Black musicians. That’s obviously a topic that has been discussed a lot in 2024, with Beyoncé moving into the country space. What’s your sense of how things are going now, and how things have changed since you first started speaking out?

Well, it's getting better. There’s a new book that just came out by Alice Randall, called My Black Country [with an accompanying compilation record], and that’s a really fascinating read. I just did an event with her at Brooklyn Library about the roots of Black musicians in country music, which was moderated by this guy called Charlamagne tha God, and it was a really interesting discussion.

I do think the Country Music Hall of Fame has woken up to how foundational Black artists have been to modern country music. The Americana Association has certainly come on leaps and bounds in welcoming Black musicians into their midst. But yeah, I have been thinking about this for a long time, and I do think that it’s getting better.

Rosanne Cash The Killing Fields

Black Deer Festival of Americana 2024 runs from 14–16 June. Weekend and day tickets are available at

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