In the 22 months that passed between the release of Rosanne Cash's wonderfully articulated Rules of Travel and Black Cadillac, she became an orphan. She lost her stepmother, June Carter Cash, in May of 2003; her father, Johnny, passed away in September of that same year; and in May of 2005, her mother, Vivian Liberto Cash Distin, left this world as well. According to Cash, she began writing the songs for Black Cadillac in spring 2003 and ended in spring 2005. She began recording in November 2004. In other words, the album is the aural documentation of a process of grief, loss, and acceptance. And though her family was not the typical American family, this set is universal in its concepts. Certainly, it is an elegy; her father's presence is everywhere here. It is also more than that; it is a reckoning, with memory, anger, love, joy, grief, pain, and resolve. The set opens with Johnny's disembodied voice calling her: "Rosanne, c'mon." And the title track kicks into gear with a rumbling bass, a drum kit, and guitars emerging sparsely, surrounding her voice as she sings, "It was a black Cadillac/That drove you away...Now one of us gets to go to heaven/While one has to stay here in hell." The guitars explode into the mix, carrying the refrain, breaking open not only the tune, but her heart: "It was a black Cadillac/Like the one you used to drive/You were always rollin'/But the wheels burnt up your life/It's a black heart of pain I'm wearin'/That suits me just fine/'Cause there was nothin' I could do for you/While you were still alive." These lyrics, the swirling six strings, a funky Fender Rhodes, the crashing of drums, and the distant, tinny horns quoting their place in "Ring of Fire," as the track ends, while it opens up the focus of the rest of the disc -- it becomes the mission statement for the heart-rendering that follows.
Cash has a history of searing honesty; Interiors and The Wheel are just two examples. But Black Cadillac engages it in a different way. She disguises nothing. There are no extended painterly metaphors. These are open and direct songs without self-pity, without artifice. Writing about her parents, she expresses regret, but doesn't ask for more time; there is only the open, unbowed humility of gratitude and the weight and burden of history, and experience that results in wisdom. In "I Was Watching You," she recounts her history from youth to age 50 with Johnny, and amid the atmospheric arrangements, she states plaintively, "Long after life/There is love." It's the crack in the record that becomes the catalyst for her search for meaning after these experiences. There are rockers, too, such as "Burn This Town Down," which struts its country, rock, and roots simultaneously. Yet it's all beside the point. From "God Is in the Roses," a nearly straight-up country tune that re-engages faith in God not as a concept, but as a place for the soul to find solace and rest in life's most difficult occurrences, the question of faith looms large on Black Cadillac. In "World Without Sound" she states, "I wish I was a Christian/And knew what to believe/I could learn a lot of rules/To put my mind at ease." "Like Fugitives" indicts religion -- and a few other things -- to a slippery trip-hop rhythm track and expresses anger purely and simply. The rocking "Dreams Are Not My Home" feels like it were written for Dire Straits. The poetic lyric is offered authoritatively against acoustic and electric guitars. This tune is a manifesto. Its refrain digs against the illusions of the past and the many temptations to escape the difficult present: "I want to live in the real world/I want to act like a real girl/I want to know I'm not alone/And that dreams are not my home." The bluesy country-rock in "House on the Lake" (referring to the old Cash home in Hendersonville, TN) evokes memory and the notion of place as a metaphor for passage and return. The guitars turn and wind around mandolin passages that underscore the determined declaration in Cash's voice.
Cash has always been a pioneer and experimented freely. Since the release of 1990's Interiors, she has distanced herself -- on records -- from her family's country roots; in the process, she's carved a small niche in the nebulous adult alternative "genre." Black Cadillac shows the songwriter coming full circle without compromise. Her signature brand of country music has become part of her mix again. She has always employed rock and pop sounds even on her early outings. Cash embraces country here as a part of the sonic tapestry that includes every kind of music she's interested in. This set was recorded in Los Angeles with Bill Botrell (the odd numbered cuts) and in New York with husband-producer John Leventhal (the even numbered ones), and it's an album that CMT and even country radio can warm to. (This is interesting, because in 2006 the music the genre consciously employs and strives to include is something Cash helped to pioneer as far back as the 1980s.) This album is extraordinary. It is brave, difficult, and honest. It is utterly moving and beautiful. Because it so successfully marries all of her strengths as a songwriter, singer, and musician, Black Cadillac may be the crowning achievement of her career thus far.