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Country in the City

Rosanne Cash followed her father to New York—and stuck around.


Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, firstborn daughter of American legend Johnny Cash, has lived in New York for nineteen years and has been on Twitter for less than one. She tweets somewhere around 60 times per day, often weighing in on popular culture (she recently called Juno “a manipulative and contrived pile of shit”) and having fun with celebrities who might be taking themselves a bit too seriously. Last month, she made light of a certain actor’s role as online advice-giver: “Am eating coconut cake for breakfast. Will check Gwyneth Paltrow’s nutrition blog to see if that’s okay. After I finish eating it.” Then came a subconscious encounter with an action star: “Dreamed Tom Cruise tried to convert me to Scientology. I rebuffed him. Again.”

Cash logs on via iPad from the kitchen of her Chelsea townhouse or from her seat on a flight to the latest show. Her more than 6,000 Twitter followers have become familiar with the cast of characters in her life: the stalker who goes through her sidewalk recycling bin; her husband, musician John Leventhal, whom she calls “Mr. L.” and who sometimes irritates her with his loyalty to Steely Dan; her 11-year-old son, Jake, whom she occasionally refers to as “the Loan Shark” because he demands interest on the money he lends his forgetful mother; her stepdaughter and three daughters from her first marriage, to country-music hotshot Rodney Crowell; and then there are “the Twins,” a phrase Cash uses on Twitter for her breasts.

Cash, 55, likes to create amusing, clear-focused snapshots of her daily life. (“I asked Mr. L. what percentage of what I say he actually listens to and he said ‘probably at least double digits,’ ” she wrote recently.) But her mode isn’t always domestic comedy. In the spring, she got into a Twitter dispute with veteran music writer Rob Tannenbaum, who argued that singing doesn’t require the skill or work it takes to master a musical instrument. Cash shot back: “Hold on there, mister. I play both guitar and piano, and voice is the more complicated instrument.”

The tweet-feud that erupted was funny, but Cash ended up telling him, at one point: “It’s a fucking arrogant thing 2 say. U live my life as a singer for 35 yrs—the work, anxiety, diligence, Damage.”

Cash spent her early childhood in Johnny Carson’s old house in Encino, California. In that hot, dry place, she developed a fear of snakes and a wariness of reporters and other wanderers who would stop by hoping to find her father. Cash’s mother, a homemaker from San Antonio, born Vivian Liberto, had a hard time with her pill-popping, often-absent husband; the marriage ended in 1966. All of this is chronicled in the 2005 film Walk the Line, which Cash finds oversimplified and painful to sit through.

From an early age, she dreamed of being a writer or poet. This was an aspiration she fulfilled, to a degree, with the publication of her 1996 book Bodies of Water, a collection of short stories written after her divorce from Crowell, when she was settling into life as a single mother in New York.

A couple of years after the book appeared, while she was starting work on her tenth album, Cash found she could not sing: Polyps had taken root in her vocal cords. The condition kept her out of the recording studio and away from concert stages for about three years. In that time, she went back to her childhood ambition, turning out essays for magazines. One of these grew into a memoir, Composed, which will be published by Viking on August 10.

The book has its share of dramatic events: her pulling the plug on her own Nashville stardom after a string of eleven No. 1 singles on Billboard’s country chart; the split from Crowell and marriage to Leventhal (“Thank God,” Johnny Cash said at the time. “I’ve been waiting 40 years for one of my daughters to marry a Jew”); the one-after-another deaths of her father, mother, stepmother June Carter Cash, and June’s hard-living daughter Rosie Nix Adams; and the brain surgery Cash underwent in 2007. All of this could have made for mere melodrama, but Cash sorts through what life has dealt her in a straightforward and understated manner; like her fourteen albums, Composed is intimate without being icky.

Among other things, the book is about finding happiness in the one city that didn’t make her feel weird. She first came to New York when she was a teenager visiting her father. It doesn’t fit the Johnny Cash legend, but he spent significant time in an apartment he owned at 40 Central Park South and stayed regularly at the Sherry-Netherland, the Plaza, and the Plaza Athénée.

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