After more than three decades in music, Rosanne Cash has proved beyond a doubt that she is much more than Johnny Cash's eldest child.
Cash has sent records to the top of the charts, made a name for herself in the world of literature and journalism, and been the subject of a lauded short documentary about her life and family ties.
It's the writing that captured her imagination as a young artist, said Cash, who plays Layton's Kenley Centennial Amphitheater, with Kate MacLeod opening, on Friday, Aug. 31.
However, like most budding talents, she confesses her early stabs at literature were pretty pitiful.
"But I had that sense I really wanted to be a writer pretty early," Cash said, calling from home in New York. "I think I tried to write short stories about then, too, but I was very unsuccessful. Then I started writing songs at 18. And again, all those early songs were pathetic. But I kept at it -- I loved it so much, I just kept at it."
Cash said that, whether it be "Bodies of Water," her book of short stories, her memoir, or the various columns, articles and forewords she has written in recent years, she approaches all styles with a songwriter's sensibility.
"I really depend on finding a certain kind of melody in prose," Cash said. "I guess that is no different from any other prose writer. But I must find a strong sense of melody to guide me." She laughed. "Writing prose has a lot of rope to hang yourself with! I'd say I still approach it as a beginner."
Cash put the writer inside her aside and slipped on her interpreter's hat for her most recent album, "The List," from 2009. In its own way, it was an album that was more than 30 years in the making.
Cash was 18 years old and on her first tour, in support of her father. On that tour, he mentioned several songs he considered American classics. When the elder Cash discovered his daughter had never heard of some of the songs he knew as treasures, he wrote her a list of 100 songs he felt she needed to know --songs like "Long Black Veil" and Bob Dylan's "Girl From the North Country," both of which Johnny Cash performed and recorded.
It is a list she always kept with her, but never thought she'd use as source material for an album.
"I completely resisted the idea of making those songs," she said. "But then, after my dad died, and I had made 'Black Cadillac' (2006), I started talking about that list in my show -- that particular tour was a theater piece, and I talked in it about this list my father gave me, and the roots of roots music.
"Well, people kept coming up to me and saying, 'What about the list? When are you going to record that?' I said, 'No, no, no' -- and then, of course, that is exactly what I did."
The album earned a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album and went to No. 5 and No. 22, respectively, on the Billboard Country and Top 200 charts.
"It was the right time," said Cash. "I could not have done that record when I was young. It took maturity and an acceptance of all my history, and his (Johnny Cash's) history to be able to do that."
Some songs weren't easy for Cash, such as the Patsy Cline classic, "She's Got You." She said she would not have tackled that one had not her husband, John Leventhal, gently pushed her toward it.
"I think I might have resisted it because it was such an iconic recording," she said. "But once I got into it, I loved doing it."
Cash and Leventhal are currently working on an album about the people and culture of the Southern United States. She said she hopes to finish it by early next year at the latest.
The album was inspired last year, when she went to Dyess, Ark., to perform at a concert fundraiser for a New Deal-era colony that had purchased Johnny Cash's childhood home.
"It was a huge deal -- a lot of artists, 7,000 people, PBS was there," she said.
While she was down there, Marshall Grant, her father's original bassist in the Tennessee Two, passed away. Grant was someone Rosanne Cash was very close to. She stayed for his funeral.
"The poignancy of the South, the people I had known and loved, it all coalesced by my going to Dyess -- seeing my dad's old house, and that land," she said. "It was so moving to me, it kind of opened up that avalanche of feeling in me about the South and who I come from."
Soon after, she and Leventhal took a road trip through Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas, in order to soak up the essence and write songs about the region.
"I want to show what this area is really about. The South, in particular to Northeasterners, has a bad rep -- racist, right-wing, intractable. But there is this richness and sweetness to the people, and I would hate that to go unnoticed. I want to really celebrate that aspect of the South with this project."
THE CASH FILE
• Rosanne Cash is the eldest daughter of country legend Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian.
• At 18, after graduating from high school, Cash hit the road with her father, joining his tour as a wardrobe assistant and later as a singer.
• She studied English and drama at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and then continued her drama studies at the Lee Strasburg Institute in Los Angeles.
• Cash recorded her first demo in 1978, alongside Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. She and Crowell married in 1979. They had three daughters before divorcing in 1992.
• Cash broke through in a big way with her second album, “Seven Year Ache,” in 1981, which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Country Charts and No. 26 on the Billboard Top 200.
• No. 1 hits include “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train,” “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,” “Never Be You,” “Tennessee Flat Top,” “The Way We Make a Broken Heart,” “If You Change Your Mind,” “Runaway Train,” “I Don’t Want To Spoil the Party” and a duet with Crowell, “It’s Such a Small World.”
• Cash has been nominated for 12 Grammys. She took the Grammy home in 1985 for Best Female Country Vocal Performance for “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me.”
• She was named Billboard’s Top Singles Artist of the Year in 1988.
• Cash lost her father and stepmother, June Carter Cash, within months of each other in 2003, and her mother followed in 2005. Those losses influenced her album “Black Cadillac,” released in 2006, and the tour that followed. The road show was a multimedia event, with video, photos and narration showcasing her family’s history. The album was critically acclaimed, landing on the year’s best lists of The New York Times, Billboard, PopMatters, and NPR, among others.
• Cash underwent brain surgery for a condition called Chiari I Malformation in 2007. She recovered in full and resumed touring in 2008.
• Cash has also become an accomplished prose writer, with a book of short stories (“Bodies of Water,” Hyperion, 1996), a biography (“Composed,” Viking, 2010) and a children’s book/CD companion, “Penelope Jane: A Fairy’s Tale” (HarperCollins, 2006). Her essays and columns have appeared in publications including The New York Times, Oxford American, Rolling Stone and Newsweek.