Rosanne Cash has recorded eleven No. 1 singles, blurring the genres of country, rock, roots, and pop. She has received one grammy and twelve grammy nominations, among other awards and accolades, including an honorary doctorate from Memphis College of Art. A prolific writer, Cash has written Bodies of Water (Hyperion, 1996),Penelope Jane: A Fairy’s Tale (Harper-Collins, 2006), edited the book Songs Without Rhyme (Hyperion, 2001), and recently penned her memoir Composed (Viking, 2010). Rosanne’s prose and essays have appeared in the New York Times, The Oxford-American, New York Magazine, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Martha Stewart Living and various other publications. Her last record album, The List, won the Americana Music award for Best Album of the year and was a critical and commercial success.
Q: What’s the most significant risk you’ve taken professionally?
There are series of small risks in my work every day– going for a different note, improvising, trying out a new song in concert for the first time or working with a new musician. Just walking on stage sometimes feels like a risk. I performed at the Rolling Stones tribute earlier this year at Carnegie Hall and when they asked what song I wanted to do, I immediately said
‘Gimme Shelter’, because I’ve always thought it was one of the top five greatest rock and roll songs of all time. There couldn’t have been a riskier choice for me. It was thrilling.
Those are the fun risks.
I’ve taken two really big career risks. In 1989, I had a hugely successful album that had four number one singles on it, and I had some leverage with my label, Sony, so I asked if I could produce a record myself. I made a small, dark, acoustic record called “Interiors”. It was something of a mission statement for me. It was authentic and personal and kind of rough around the edges. I thought I had done the best work of my life. My record label heard it and said ‘We can’t do anything with this.’ They put out a single, but didn’t do any promotion for it, and clearly wanted to let the record disappear. I was devastated. About three months after the release I was on a plane, staring out the window, and it came to me that I had to ask to be released from the label or at least transferred to the New York division from Nashville. I called my dad and asked his advice (something I rarely did). He said ‘screw ‘em. You belong in New York.’ I called a meeting with the head of the label and went in alone– no manager or lawyer. I asked them to let me go. I had been there 12 years. Basically, they said ‘we’ll miss you’, and the meeting was over in 20 minutes. I walked out and had to lean against the wall, I was so dizzy. I was scared I had made the biggest mistake of my life.
It was the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. I moved to New York in 1991, I got divorced, I met the love of my life, and that dark little record was nominated for a Grammy in the Contemporary Folk category. It gave me a new set of bona fides in the industry. Things didn’t go easier after that– in fact, they became much more difficult for quite some time. The divorce was excruciating, I was broke, I was the subject of a lot of vicious rumors, and I had no more chart hits after that. But my life opened up and I started relying more on my own instincts. Four years later, I took another risk when I asked to be released from the label entirely, even though my contract wasn’t up, because it just wasn’t working. Again, I went in alone, even though my manager thought it was a bad idea. They let me go, and I started from scratch again. Those career risks are like chess, in a way. There is an element of instinct, but it’s mostly logic and planning and creating a new vision for the future. The other risks– the artistic risks– are the ones that infuse my soul with inspiration and propel me forward and refine my skills and intuition. Those are the risks that connect me with my own authenticity. The career risks are a First World Problem, and anecdotal in retrospect. The artistic risks make me who I am.