For nearly 30 years, Roseanne Cash has mined tragedy and heartbreak as part of her creative process. But it wasn't until the last few years that so much of it hit so close to home.
Between May 2003 and May 2005, she lost her stepmother (country singer June Carter Cash), her father (the legendary Johnny Cash) and, finally, her own mother, Vivian Liberto. So it's hardly a surprise that her most recent collection of songs, Black Cadillac, is a meditation on her family's life.
"In some ways, it was more emotional recording them than it was writing them," Cash says. "Writing is a kind of solitary pursuit, and I'm free with my own thoughts and my own train of unfolding things."
Cash has never been afraid of laying her personal life on the line. In the '80s, her husband Rodney Crowell produced her breakthrough records Somewhere in the Stars and King's Record Shop. When their marriage collapsed, she recorded Interiors, a scathing indictment of the couple's substance abuse, deceit and infidelity.
Today, Cash is no longer decked out in rhinestone-studded denim vests. She doesn't have the spiky hair with orange highlights. She also doesn't have a burdensome coke habit.
In fact, she's quite matronly by comparison.
Yet Black Cadillac is one of the most resonant albums she's ever released, both musically and emotionally. With the help of husband and producer John Leventhal, she adds a pop sheen to both twangy Appalachia and sentimental piano ballads.
Early on, she sings about her father's formative years as a hard-working, well-meaning boy from a struggling Arkansas family. A few songs later, in the raunchy barroom dirge "World Without Sound," she explores her own loss, asking, "Who do I believe in this world without sound?/Who do I believe when they put you in the ground?"
Working on the album with Leventhal, producer Bill Bottrell and vocalist Catherine Russell, she says she needed "for it to come out of [myself] a bit more, and meet the musicians' understanding and response to the material, so it became emotional for a lot of us."
Black Cadillac is personal, but Cash doesn't view it as any sort of authoritative word on what went on in her father's head. Naturally, Cash is weary from answering questions about her dad, especially since his death and subsequent rebirth in the Academy Award-winning biopic Walk the Line.
"I'm not consumed with my childhood. I'm a working artist and I take inspiration wherever it comes from," she says. "A lot of people want to go to the back story about these famous people who died and [ask] "Isn't that what [Black Cadillac] is really about?'
"Well, not to me. This record is about my experience of loss and ancestry."
Cash's music is more limber live, where she can flesh out the songs. People assume that the album is a diary, she says, and expect her to perform the songs with similar austerity.
"It's music, so it has its own kind of transcendent quality-there's a backbeat, there's instruments," she says. "So it's not like I'm out there reading a memorial service every night.
Roseanne Cash plays with Greg Tannen at Humphrey's by the Bay on Aug. 28. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. $42. 619-220-8497.