LOS ANGELES – Rosanne Cash has lived her life being the daughter of one of the biggest icons in music history: Johnny Cash. That journey included years of trying to get out from under his shadow, dealing with all of the darkness that haunted the man in black and eventually learning to embrace her country music roots.
Cash faced all those emotions again by being part of “Country Music,” the latest documentary from Ken Burns. The eight-part, 16-hour film slated to air at 8 p.m. Sunday to Sept. 18 and Sept. 22-25 on PBS looks at the history of the musical genre that includes the massive contribution made by Rosanne Cash’s family dating back to 1927. As she came to understand, being part of the country music family means “telling the truth one note at a time.”
Many of the truths told in the Burns documentary have to do with the Cash and Carter family. Cash was willing to be part of the documentary because she knew from past documentaries by Burns that he approaches every topic with an eagerness to get to the truth and will not compromise in telling the full story.
“Country music tells us the story of ourselves,” Cash says. “It is not just about falling in love and getting your heart broken. It’s about family and travel and death and mother and loss and servitude and the very land we come from.
“Those are big theme and they are part of our unconscious. These songs are part of who we are as Americans. Whether we recognize it or not, they are there. They are our oral histories note by note.”
The notes that get told about Rosanne Cash shows that while she is often put in the category of being a country artist, just like her father, she has embraced a wide variety of musical genres from rock to blues. This style has earned her four Grammy wins and 11 No. 1 country hit singles.
Burns turns his attention to Johnny Cash starting with the fourth episode and charts how he went from music superstar to a forgotten man. Rosanne Cash was able to talk about the ups and downs her father faced because he had been so open talking about it.
“He was honest about it and said it over and over and over. I would never try to hide anything that he was so truthful about,” Rosanne Cash says. “It’s his portfolio. Those really awful painful things. The hard parts of his history is all part of what makes him who he was.
“We all have our own portfolios.”
In the case of the portfolio for Rosanne Cash, she has been performing since the ‘80s but her passion for music has never wavered. She says in very certain terms that she feels lucky and excited to have the job she has. Part of that comes from making every day feel like the first day of her career, where she’s excited just to find out what will be the next song in her life.
And there’s no denying that family – a major theme in country music – is a massive part of who she has become. She has learned that when you are talking about family in connection with country music, it’s not just who you are related to but often the subject of your songs.
“It’s not just context but it is also content,” Cash says.
As for whether she thinks of herself as country music royalty considering how much impact her family had on the art form, Rosanne Cash is quick to dismiss such talk as being very dangerous. She prefers to think of herself as part of a strong tradition.
Being part of the documentary didn’t reveal anything to Rosanne Cash that she didn’t already know about her family. It did end up being a very special project for her.
“The gift they gave me was one of being humbled by seeing my dad’s destiny apart from being his child and what influenced him and the traditions that we came from and the honor. I feel so tremendously honored that the respect my family was given in this film, and I feel proud of it,” Rosanne Cash says.