Episode 09: Roseanne Cash
Rosanne Cash has spent her career as a musician and author telling stories—from the Mississippi Delta, from her family’s roots in the 19th century, and from her own American experience. Now she brings that spirit to NYU students to "explore and spread the word about the roots music that informs so much of what I do and who I am.”
A four-time Grammy winner and immensely successful crossover artist in country, pop, and Americana, she moved from Nashville to New York City in 1991 and considers it home. She continues to compose, record, and perform extensively, as well as to write memoir, fiction, and essays.
Cash recently joined the NYU Steinhardt School as the 2021-22 NYU/Americana Artist-in-Residence—the first artist’s residency developed in partnership with the Americana Music Association Foundation. She will present, curate, and moderate a variety of lectures, discussions, workshops, performances, and classroom visits throughout the academic year, including a three-day Lyric Workshop, in which a handful of NYU Steinhardt songwriting students will develop and workshop original material under her guidance.
PA System [00:00:00] This is West 8th Street, New York University.
Announcer [00:00:15] From New York University? You're listening to Conversations, hosted by President Andy Hamilton. In each episode, Andy talks insight, inquiry and imagination with a leading mind from the NYU community.
President Hamilton [00:00:34] Hello, everyone. Today we are joined by the world renowned Rosanne Cash, and Rosanne has spent her career as a musician and an author, telling stories, telling stories from the Mississippi Delta from her family's roots in the 19th century and from her own American experience. And we are delighted that she is spending that 2021-22 academic year with us at NYU, and she brings that spirit of storytelling to NYU and to NYU students to explore and, in her own words, "to explore and spread the word about the roots music that informs so much of what I do and who I am." Rosanne Cash is a four time Grammy winner, an immensely successful crossover artist in country, pop, and Americana. She moved from Nashville to New York City in 1991 and now very much considers New York City her home. She continues to record, to compose and to perform extensively, as well as to write memoir, fiction and essays. Thank you so much for being with us this morning.
Roseanne Cash [00:01:57] Oh, it's my pleasure, President Hamilton, and all of that sounded wonderful and exhausting. [laughs]
President Hamilton [00:02:04] Well, let me begin, Rosanne, by asking you about your musical influences and the way they have affected your style. And you reached enormous success as a country singer, but then crossed over into pop, into Americana, but never losing your roots, never losing the connection to your past and place. But you were also able to incorporate other genres and continually reinventing yourself. So let me ask you what guides, what influences that style of music that you create at any given time, with it obviously changing over time?
Roseanne Cash [00:02:50] Well, I don't think it's a simple answer. It's not very clean cut. I think that for most artists and musicians that what you, what informed you as a young person that made an enormous impact on you tends to resonate through your life. But then, as your inner listener becomes more mature and develops, more things come in. And these hybrid influences, at least that's how it bends for me. You know, the first time I heard The Beatles, it was like being struck blind, and at the same time there was my father in the house and my mother listening to Patsy Cline. And then there was Elton John, and then there was, you know, Creedence Clearwater Revival. There were all of the great rock bands of the 60s and 70s. At the same time, these quintessential country artists were going in by osmosis. So I think that all of that informed me. And then later on, as I said, you know, you mature as a listener and then I listen to Miles Davis, you know, and Ennio Morricone and Aaron Copeland. So I don't, I think it pays to be curious and it pays to not separate genre, but to separate good and bad.
President Hamilton [00:04:18] Yeah, but it's fascinating the way you describe the inner listener. And over time, those influences themselves change. And, you know, talk about the Beatles all the way through Creedence Clearwater Revival and Miles Davis. But at any given time, is it conscious the impact that those musicians are having on you? Or is it something that you absorb kind of organically?
Roseanne Cash [00:04:50] I think both. I mean, I'm still well aware and in touch with the feeling that the Beatles had on me at 10 years old. That's, you know, that doesn't go away. And I'm sure that my understanding of lyric writing and the construction of a pop song that, that imprint has stayed with me all these years and. At the same time, sometimes, you know, like you can use music as a tool for to get in touch with your own feelings about something to reflect upon something in your own life. I mean, for example, after 9/11. You know, I think all New Yorkers were we were in a tense state for a long time and that Christmas I was listening to the BBC Proms on the radio. I was sitting on a stool, listening to it in the kitchen. Suddenly, all of that grief poured out, so it just unlocked the key or the key that music unlocked the wellspring that was there. So I think that, sometimes you aren't consciously aware that music is doing something like that for you. But it happens anyway.
President Hamilton [00:06:14] But the power with which you've described The Beatles and the BBC Proms and Creedence Clearwater and others is also reflective of the impact that your music has around the world. You know, the Beatles affected my life. I'm not a musician. I'm a scientist. But in 1960s Britain, but to know that in the south of America, the Beatles were affecting your life as well. It's a pretty powerful thing to to recognize. And your music is having that same effect.
Roseanne Cash [00:06:47] Well, that's very generous of you. I I know I have a certain audience. It's certainly not like the Beatles, but I know I have a certain audience who appreciate what I do. Yeah, because I hear from them and I pay attention and, you know, I have a great deal of respect for my audience. And that's something I learned from my father about respecting your audience. You don't take them for granted. If they came to see you perform, they spent their discretionary income to do that. Don't disrespect them. So when you say it affects people, that moves me. If I get a letter, someone tells me that a record helped them through their divorce or, you know, through a loss or a celebration that means something.
President Hamilton [00:07:41] As you look at the influence of different people on your career musically, do you also take account of the trajectory of their careers? And I was struck by a wonderful comment you made in a recent piece about your own talents and you made a comment that "I'm more relentless than gifted, truly. But relentlessness is also a gift," And I thought that was just a great line, which applies to science. You know, Einstein, Einstein once said science is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. So as you talk to NYU students, but certainly as you think about your own career, the trajectory of the Miles Davises, of the The Beatles and others who struggled in it through many early days. To what, to what extent does that inspire you or play a role as you think about your own career?
Roseanne Cash [00:08:39] Well, I was when you said that I was going to say I'm sure that applies to science as well. I think it I think another word for relentlessness could be devotion. Yeah, and another word could be perseverance. And I do think that that has been a large part of the success I've acheived, is that I don't give up. It's whatever that is in me that feels urgent to me to create and express whatever it is that keeps driving that engine in me. That's been an enormous part of my success. There are plenty of people who are more gifted than me, but maybe not, You know, maybe they weren't as relentless as me, like a dog with a bone.
President Hamilton [00:09:29] Let me ask how you've crossed over you. You've changed your musical style in a number of points in your career. Well, what would you say to to NYU students who or to young people who feel that their work doesn't easily fit within any particular genre or category? How would you encourage them?
Roseanne Cash [00:09:55] I would say that's wonderful if it doesn't fit and that crossover is a marketing term, it's not an artistic term. It's not a term for the creative arts. And that if you are a hybrid of your influences and a hybrid of what drives you and your passions and what really resonates in you, and you've somehow managed to synthesize that into something that's original or as original as any human could be, because none of us is completely original. There were five stories and Shakespeare told them all right and 12 notes, and they've been played in every combination possible. But if you have synthesized various disparate influences out of your own curiosity and love and that has become something original to you, that is the whole point of all of this, I wouldn't worry about not being able to be categorized.
President Hamilton [00:11:00] You mentioned a few moments ago 9/11 and obviously 9/11 was a terrible event that affected the whole world, but especially affected New York City, and I'd like to explore that issue of place and you've changed musically, but you've also changed in your career, geographically and moving in the 1990s to New York City. And how is New York City itself shaped your inner life as a musician? You've raised children here. You've lived here now for nearly three decades and the role of the city in your music?
Roseanne Cash [00:11:39] Well, I think geography does have its own resonance. So I think you're right that, you know, Memphis is very different from London and London is very different from Los Angeles, and I was born in Memphis. And that means a lot to me that the musical stew that was going on in Memphis when I was born, I claim and I identify with even though I left Memphis when I was three years old and grew up in California, Southern California. But then I had the benefit of hearing all of those great rock bands and being part of that during the 60s and 70s and then back to Nashville. Then I went to London for six months, so I fancied that I would become an expatriate. You know that I would look at America through a lens from afar, but I came back and, like you said, moved to New York in '91. I always felt to be a New Yorker. When I got to New York in 91, I thought, this is home, I see myself here. I feel myself to be myself in this city. And it's strange how the geographical location can be like a marriage. You know, it's the residence it can have inside, you know, we wrote I wrote an album with my husband, John Leventhal called The River and the thread is about places in the south that was like this musical geography, a map of those places in the south that were so rich and textured and haunted, and the characters that populated them because they're unlike any place else. So geography has its own inspiration.
President Hamilton [00:13:28] Yeah. No, it's fascinating as you you talk through the the musical traditions of the South. One has to ask a question why? Why would a city like Liverpool in one particular point in time create such an outpouring of talent and and musical influence? But we see that in New York, we see it in so many different places. I'd like to to explore another connection that you've made in your art and your music. And when you accepted the Edward MacDowell Medal, which was for your immense contributions to American culture and the arts this past July, you said something you said. I discovered that in my mind, songs look like paintings before they become songs. I think that's why I feel such a powerful kinship and attraction to the visual arts, and that's a fascinating juxtaposition you create in that phrase, I'd love... Could you elaborate a little further how that plays out in your writing as well, your songwriting, as well as your your performance?
Roseanne Cash [00:14:43] I don't know if that is a universal experience for songwriters. I doubt it. I'm sure that other songwriters get inspired in different ways. But for me, I am a visual person and Visual artist, I have a lot of friends who are visual artists and. I don't know why it unfolds like that. There is a song I wrote called I Was Watching You and I just saw this Texas road at night with headlights on the road and a 1950s radio playing, and that became this. That was the first line of the song Headlights on a Texas Road. Hank Williams on the radio. So why the song? I just had to follow the cinema of that song and it didn't lead where I thought it would. It became really heartbreaking song about looking down from above on your parents before you were born and how they were going to become your parents. And many songs have unfolded that way for me as a recent song I wrote called the The Killing Fields. I just saw these cotton fields and the trees that were used to lynch Black people in the South and how those trees probably still had resonance of that kind of violence and suffering and reckoning with my own complicated southern history. So yeah, if I if I could be a visual artist, that's what I would be.
President Hamilton [00:16:32] But it's wonderful the way you describe that. It's not, it's certainly not a snapshot, it's actually a picture in your mind, changing over time through time, through historical influences, in different places. It's a fascinating, you know, the the process of creativity is something that is endlessly fascinating and it comes in so many different forms.
Roseanne Cash [00:16:56] But I'm sure it's the same for you that doing research or doing theories or discovering that some unexpected inspiration will come from someplace you couldn't possibly predict. And there's such joy in that isn't there?
President Hamilton [00:17:16] Absolutely. And I think, you know, writing songs, performing them, you are doing things that have never words that have never come together and melodies that have never been connected with those words before. And the nature of research, whether it's in science or in the humanities, that you are intellectually going places in the interpretation of a novel or in the explanation of a biological process in science, you're going somewhere no one's ever been before. And that is a creative, you know, it has a has an influence of creativity because you've got to imagine things that no one has ever imagined before.
Roseanne Cash [00:18:01] You know, I love the sciences. I I have a deep fascination with theoretical physics, and the poetry and physics just kills me. you know Event Horizon, Dark Matter, speed of light, mutual attraction. All of these things are so rich and dense with poetry, and there's something about quantum physics that is like God to me, the unknowingness, the vast wonder and awe that is part of that. That, to me, is a universal source of creativity. I love that, what you do. See I would love to come and observe what you do in your work.
President Hamilton [00:18:52] That can be arranged for next year, Roseanne
Roseanne Cash [00:18:54] Oh good! [laughs]
President Hamilton [00:18:57] Become and an artist-scientist in residence instead of just an artist in residence.
Roseanne Cash [00:19:01] That would be fascinating, wouldn't it, to somehow draw the sciences into an arts curriculum?
President Hamilton [00:19:08] Roseanne, there are so many things I want to explore. And obviously your career has been a hugely successful one. You've had many influences, but you also come know in a in a not a very common set of examples before you from a from a renowned family of of musical stars and musical influences. And I wondered if we could explore that. It's true of everyone as they as they develop their careers and find their own voice. You know, that is something, Whether it be as a scientist or as a songwriter and musician, finding your own voice. And of course, that, you know, to have the family legacy, the family connections that you have can be a great, a great opportunity and advantage, but it can also be a burden and a challenge as well. How did you how did you tackle that in your career and find your own voice as you did so superbly?
Roseanne Cash [00:20:14] I... It wasn't easy, but my relentlessness paid off in that as well that I and I had some hubris. You know, like I really I trusted my instincts long before I should have, but that making those mistakes led me to understand, to refine what those instincts, you know, in a better way. Once I had the skill set to implement those instincts. But. I probably pushed my dad away longer than was graceful trying to do this, and he was very tolerant of that and kind, and I think understood. But as I've grown older, I've realized it's not that different for you know, when you're a young person in your 20s, you want to push your parents away, you want to find out who you are apart from them. And if they have been very successful in the same field you've gone in, it's very difficult and it requires more strength and effort to push. For instance, I know a neurosurgeon and his father is a renowned neurosurgeon. And my friend, who's my age is, you know, well on his way to being very renowned when at the time I knew him and I said, Well, has your dad come into the operating room with you to watch? He goes? Oh, no, no, no, no. I've never let my dad in to watch me. I would just freak out. i was like, you're a neurosurgeon at Columbia, you know. So I realize it's not that different.
President Hamilton [00:21:53] And did you ever freak out with your dad in the audience or not?
Roseanne Cash [00:21:58] I think I got, you know? Yeah, sure.
President Hamilton [00:22:05] Well, I think that's true. You know, I think back to, you know, giving lectures on my science with parents in the audience or family members. And there is that that adds that extra level. These are people who know you from every direction as opposed to those who only connected through professional things. But let's let's move on to your your time at NYU Roseanne and we've talked about the role that you'll be playing at Steinhart. And I want to encourage everyone listening. Don't just listen to Roseanne, but read her as well. She has some wonderful ways of pithily summarizing the role of artists in society, and I want to quote again from something you said fairly recently. You said artists are in a service industry. The premiere service industry for the heart and soul, I thought that was a wonderful way of describing the role of the arts in modern society, a service industry, but service for the heart and soul. And I'd love to to explore, you know, how you will be spending your time with NYU students, what's your hope for the students who are going to be in the various workshops with you? And and what's the attraction of working with younger artists? What draws you to this role?
Roseanne Cash [00:23:33] Well, it's done in itself as a service to, ah, you know, it works hard for 40 something years to pass on anything that I've gleaned to young people because I know this is a really, really hard business. But also, I receive just as much. It's not a one way street, you know, and I'm so I've actually been a guest teacher in the Steinhardt School songwriting program several times and in other universities as well. And I'm so moved by young people and how hungry they are and how much they want to know and how curious they are and how hard they work and their own sense of devotion. It's really inspiring and it's deeply touching. So if I can put myself in that space, why wouldn't I? Why wouldn't I receive that from them? And I think what you asked about earlier about people who couldn't categorize themselves, songwriters who couldn't categorize themselves. I think part of my job is to reassure them that that's OK? You may have to make a lot of mistakes and go down a lot of dark alleys and run into some walls and locked doors before you find your way. And that's part of it. It doesn't mean that it's a disaster or that it's not going to work. That's just part of it. Failure and uncertainty is part of the process.
President Hamilton [00:25:10] Yeah. And everything you've just said could equally be applied to the sciences to to writing to so many different aspects of the academic enterprise and your comment about working with young people. I think we are all made stronger by the time we spend with with young people, whether it's student researchers in my lab or whether it's in teaching, we are challenged that the questions they ask, the assumptions they challenge, I think, are all part of what makes us all stronger as well as, of course, them by going through the process and the creative inspiration.
Roseanne Cash [00:25:53] And it also keeps us young, don't you think? I mean, it really does it. And have five children, and I think it's my chief job as a parent is to be optimistic to not steal from their future in any way by any pessimism. And that in holding them up, you know, if they fail, if they're uncertain, if they're scared, to just hold them up. This is part of it.
President Hamilton [00:26:18] Well, while we're on the subject of optimism, it is quite hard to be optimistic sometimes in these current times, and we certainly see how fractious and how polarized the world has become. What do you see as the role for the arts in these difficult times? And have you in your recent life seen encouraging signs of bridges being built, healing being sought in this very, very divided and polarized world that we're currently living in?
Roseanne Cash [00:26:59] I've been thinking about that a lot because I'm frightened too, and it's so deeply troubling. The polarization you talk about, Pablo Casals said Music can save the world, and I kind of hold on to that because it I mean, it sounds trite, but it is a universal language. I don't have to speak the language to appreciate a musician from Mali or Senegal or Spain you know or and they don't have to know English to appreciate so many American artists. So there is that connection that we don't have to have a... Who was it who said music is the language behind words? Was it maybe Nietzsche and so I don't remember, but I loved that too, it's the language behind words and if artists are in the service industry of the heart and soul, and if we show up for our job and there is some kind of revolution sparked in the heart, that's one of love rather than destruction, which can happen with the arts, with music and all the arts, then that is a chance for healing. I don't think it's going to be because some politician said that, you know, we need to come together. I think it's going to because we do come together because something has moved in our own hearts. And one of the greatest things to move our hearts is art and music.
President Hamilton [00:28:44] It's fascinating that the role of music in affecting people's hearts and minds, but also that sense of optimism that you see in your children and we who work in a university, you in this year that you're spending with us. But we see enormous optimism in those young people in what they can change, what they can influence and know there's that wonderful bumper sticker isn't there. If you want to change the world, be a teacher because you are, you are changing the people who will change the world. And that's something that I think we all sense. We also change the world, Roseanne in other ways and certainly commitment. Your, through your music, but also you change the world through your charitable work, your extensive charitable work. And I wonder if you just say a little bit about your commitment to children's safety and opportunities for young people that have been very much part of your, your philanthropic and your charitable commitment?
Roseanne Cash [00:29:52] Well, I, you know, I don't feel like I've done that much. I have a very strong passion for gun control and for protecting children from gun violence. And my own daughter was held up at gunpoint many years ago, which I was involved in the in the cause before them. But that cemented my determination to... I think it's an extension of parenting to protect children from guns. It's so simple. And so what do I do? I mean, it's not like I've done anything out of the ordinary. I show up for galas and benefits and sing and speak. I went to the million mom march in 2000. I've written essays on it for various publications. I mean. That's not that much, I wish I could do more, I wish I could effect real change instead of just, you know, it's like my daughter said, Mom. People know where you stand. They kind of don't want to hear from you anymore. They want to hear from people they wouldn't expect to hear this from. But I have to. I'll never shut up about that, about that cause I just have to keep showing up. And yeah, because I'm a mother of five kids, you know, children's issues resonate with me deeply.
President Hamilton [00:31:13] Well, and I think you can never say too often the things that you believe in and the things that matter, and certainly by doing that, you know, one of the things that matters is the historical legacies in all things, but especially in the arts and you've recently been involved, I think, in an effort to restore your father's childhood home in Arkansas. And I'd love to hear how that sort of almost immediate connection through the very place that your father grew up. How that's affected you as well?
Roseanne Cash [00:31:50] Well, you know, it kind of ties back to what we were talking about before about pushing away your past, your parents, your ancestry and saying, I'm all new. This starts with me. In some ways, it does start with this. You know, like you talked about the young people in their optimism that you see in the university, which is so humbling and inspiring. But anyway, after all those years of pushing it away to some point in midlife, coming to terms with my ancestry and my past cutting the threads that need to be cut, strengthening the ones I wanted to keep tight, and that around that time it's been, you know, over a decade. Arkansas State University purchased my dad's boyhood home, which was in a new deal era colony, founded in 1935 by FDR for the farmers who were in poverty, and the Cash family was one of those 500 farmers and there were only like 20 of the houses left. The cottages left out of five hundred. They purchased it, restored it. And so ever since then, I've been involved with the fund raising to not only restore the house, but the actual colony. The new dealer colony scholarships for ASU students, educational programs about the new deal and about that area of the delta, as well as about my dad's boyhood. So I feel deeply connected to it. And I feel that it's part of my own reconciliation, not just with my own history, but with a privileged white person's history and my connection with the suffering that went on in Arkansas, the racism. And so I just saw with killing fields I told you about that goes to the Arkansas Peace and Justice Memorial movement, the proceeds from that. And it's all become part of this one thing of reparation connection. Coming to terms,
President Hamilton [00:33:59] Yeah, and that's fascinating the way the way one particular focus, which is a childhood home, suddenly you see the connection it makes to so many other important things in society today and in the past that need to be raised, need to be focused on, need to be changed. And it's a commitment of that kind can have incredible ripple effects in other ways. One last question Roseanne and again, you know your time working with NYU steinhart students. Let's make that connection to that Arkansas house. Now, you are, you are helping them develop their their art. You are helping them develop their music in workshops and in seminars. How do you how do you hope that that will influence them even beyond their career? How do you see the work that you do with students here and in other universities as well influencing their lives in non artistic and nonmusical ways that that make them better people make them more compassionate, more more generous, the kind of things that you've been describing in different ways this morning?
Roseanne Cash [00:35:23] Well, I think the first and most important way to influence someone's life is to give them respect and and not assume that they don't know anything that they're wrong. That, any of that. But. And that's actually something that I've been very conscious of during this time of polarization, particularly on social media, is that no matter what someone says, you act with respect or you block them and you have to. But so with these young people, I would say respect is first and then teaching them how not to be dismantled by their own inner critic. That you're going to have the inner critic. Don't let it stop your work, destabilize your, you know, your efforts or completely derail your the mission that you feel inside you of what you want to do.
President Hamilton [00:36:22] If I may that this has been a wonderful conversation this morning, but it was worth it for that one sentence you just wrote that do not be dismantled by your own inner critic. And I think that is something that all of us should take on board, whether we are musicians, whether we are scientists, whether we are writers. Let me let me bring our conversation to a close and thank you, Rosanne Cash for being with us during the academic year, but especially being with us this morning for a wonderful conversation.
Roseanne Cash [00:37:00] Thank you very much. This was such a pleasure. Thank you.