Rosanne Cash’s father, Johnny, died on Sept. 12, 2003. He was 71, and his sapped body had been beaten up by a bad heart and diabetes for years. At his massive Tennessee funeral, Rosanne told the congregation: ”We mourn with the very essence of mourning the loss of two connected but separate lives, Johnny Cash and Daddy. I can almost live in a world without Johnny Cash, because he will always be with us. I cannot begin to imagine a world without Daddy.”
The 50-year-old Grammy-winning singer and songwriter had spent most of her 28-year career — spanning 11 literate country-pop records, hits like ”I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me” and ”Second to No One,” and countless concerts where the inevitable ass in the room would heckle, ”Where’s Johnny?!” — trying to gracefully define herself as separate from her more famous father. And now he was gone.
A few weeks after his death, Rosanne sought comfort from a priest at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in New York City. ”I was in so much pain,” she remembers. ”I said, ‘I just want to know where my dad is. And the priest took my hand and said, ‘I don’t know.’ That’s when I started to get my faith back.”
A year later, Cash went to Christmas Eve services at St. Luke’s with her then-5-year-old son, Jake, and her three grown daughters from a previous marriage to Texas singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell. She had just started working through her grief on the page, writing the beginnings of a soothing work of beauty called ”The World Unseen.” That night at church, the choir sang the hymn ”We Three Kings.” When Cash heard the line ”Westward leading, still proceeding,” she says it was as if someone had ”smacked me with an oar. And I realized, westward leading, we’re all walking in the same direction.” She added the line to her song, and later went into the studio and recorded it in one take. For the first time since her father’s death, she experienced a profound sense of liberation from the choke hold of despair.
In the span of two and a half years, Cash has lost not just her father but her beloved stepmother, June Carter Cash, her godfather, an aunt, a stepsister, and, in a final bear swipe to the gut, her mother (and Johnny’s first wife), Vivian Liberto Distin, this past May. Her new album, Black Cadillac (due Jan. 24), on which ”The World Unseen” serves as an elegant anchor, tries to make sense of a world without all of them.
Rosanne Cash always finds it odd when people express surprise that the daughter of a country-music legend lives in New York. ”I grew up in Southern California,” she says, sitting cross-legged in pink socks on her living room’s blue velvet sofa. ”Why would I be in Nashville?” With Christmas just a few days ahead, her cheerful Manhattan brownstone practically glows with holiday warmth. ”O Holy Night” plays on the stereo, and an overweight 14-year-old tabby washes his face under the fat, twinkling tree. Jake, now 6, home from school with a sore throat, is making the batter for Christmas cookies in the kitchen before he has to leave with his father for a doctor’s appointment. Books and guitars are scattered about the living room, and the walls are covered in black-and-white family photos, including a poignant Annie Leibovitz portrait of her aged father looking stoically at the camera while Rosanne leans peacefully into the trunk of his neck.