Rosanne Cash, Elizabethtown and the Empowerment of Failure

Music Features Rosanne Cash
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Rosanne Cash was talking about her unlikely arrival as the matriarch princess of American roots music. She the punk traditionalist with eggplant hair, as likely to cut John Hiatt and Elvis Costello as she was Bobby Bare or her own father…a woman of obvious pedigree, one of Johnny Cash’s daughters from his first marriage, cousin by his marriage to the firebrand Carlene Carter and almost child-bride to maverick songwriter/artist Rodney Crowell, and songwriter of highest merit—creating the seminal “Blue Moon with Heartache” and “Seven Year Ache” at the age most people graduate college, winning a Grammy for 1985’s “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me” written about losing a Grammy the Grammy cycle prior, and creating a series of definitive projects about grief and mourning, the foundation of country music and soul of the South with 2006’s Black Cadillac, 2009’s The List and 2014’s The River & the Thread respectively.

Along the way, Cash has read her work at the Library of Congress, curated a series for Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, written books of short stories and a New York Times’ Best Seller memoir Composed, testified before the Senate, been the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Artist in Residence, Americana Artist of the Year, worked as a preservationist for her father’s Arkansas homestead and various other Southern landmarks. She has lived as an activist, feminist, artist and raised four daughters from her first marriage and her teenage son with producer/songwriter/Americana Instrumentalist award winner John Leventhal.

Yet when pressed for the single most important component for achieving all this, Cash laughs the most musical laugh imaginable. Then she half-moans, offering in her slightly wry, but deeply held seriousness, “[My career] was definitely not a straight line. There were many, many points where I floundered. I didn’t know what to do next. But I couldn’t see how to pull the work apart from the career.”

She pauses, weighing what she’s saying. She knows the costs, the stakes that are part of it, but for her, there is something greater to consider. For her, the journey included the critically lauded, but considered by many commercial suicide of Interiors, with its almost unsustainable level of intimacy or the lovely Rules of Travel, which in retrospect seems a bridge from where she’s been as a platinum-selling country star to where she now resides.

“Sometimes experimenting, failing, feeling the frustration…Pain, doubt, mistrust of myself—it all came to that. It’s empowering to fail,” she says quietly, then even more reassuringly and emphatically, “and it’s okay to take a wrong turn.”

A wrong turn. In a world of perfection at all costs, of 1600 SATs and lists of extracurricular activities as long as your arm, of hype that makes everything “the best,” “the most” and “a new record,” it is hard to not feel the pressure of expectation. Or worse, feeling the tightening noose of measuring up, or—in this hyper-achievement-driven society—falling behind.

Having taught Rock Criticism at a university that offers journalism, as well as music business and marketing/public relations majors, it was shocking to hear students only want to know: “How do we get an A?” and “What do we need to know for the test?”

Rock Criticism isn’t Beowulf or quantum physics, something endured to fulfill requirements—and yet, they only considered the grade’s impact on their average. “But didn’t you sign up for the chance to consider music on a deeper level? To look at different ways to write about it? To bring people deeper into what you’re listening to? And isn’t it also an opportunity to explore things you might not…and maybe learn how to analyze and express what’s there from different viewpoints?”

I might as well have been speaking Chinese. Not that the students didn’t love music, nor that once challenged, they weren’t passionate about making their points.

By semester’s end, all eight of them were waiting at the door when I came to unlock the room. They had questions. And the more they considered what we were discussing, the more far-ranging they went, including the impact of the business not just on the music, but what music gets heard—and doesn’t.

They started making connections that hadn’t occurred to them, yet became an integral part of the discussion. And their writing started to take on real analysis where their from-the-hip “because I like it” had been, and they began to examine issues of race, gender, sexual orientation and socio-economic realities.

What began as a class they thought was writing about records turned into something more. It became an opportunity to delve into discernment, deeper consideration of what they thought and felt, and the opportunity to make their case in a way that mattered.

But to get there, they had to suffer through the indignities of being made to read chunks of their homework to the class, interviewing each other, listening to things that were unlike what they loved—and opening up what the music loved in ways that gave their classmates an on-ramp into it. It was unfamiliar and at times uncomfortable.

Cameron Crowe’s movie Elizabethtown opens with the sound of helicopter blades, a semi-obscure soft rock song by the Hollies and Orlando Bloom’s voiceover, saying, “As somebody once said, there’s a difference between a failure and a fiasco.”

The helicopter, seen in shadow against lush green trees, lands. Bloom’s character emerges from the chopper; the wunderkind shoe designer Drew Baylor has been summoned to the “home office” to face the consequences of his ground-breaking shoe design’s complete rejection in the marketplace. As he moves through the glass modern building where he was once the heralded genius, he witnesses people’s response to him, obviously en route to—well—no one had a notion.

As Baylor passes aquarium-like conference rooms, soon-to-be-former girlfriends, long hallways filled with exquisite expensive art, the voiceover continues.

“A failure is simply the non-presence of success. Any fool can accomplish failure, but a fiasco…a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions. A fiasco is a folktale told to others that makes other people feel more alive because it didn’t happen to them.”

In some ways, Elizabethtown was considered a failure as well.

Crowe’s baby rock critic coming-of-age tale Almost Famous earned its writer/director an Academy Award, box office success and a cult status that sees his film quoted across generations as a secret handshake, but Elizabethtown never caught that fire. Widely dismissed by critics, it was considered too sweet, too hopeful and too unlikely.

After all, who tanks a company, does an interview taking the fall for the disaster, slinks off on the brink of suicide, then retrieves their suddenly dead father’s body—after wallowing in self-pity, a grand old hotel, a high-impact society Southern wedding and a full-immersion real Southern family coming together in grief as the walk-up to a funeral—and emerges with true love and a life-affirming epiphany? Come on, that’s the stuff of Frank Capra.

Failure hurts. The stakes are high. Often the humiliation is public. To achieve big, the risks are tremendous—beyond time lost, opportunities forgone and relationships starved from neglect. Not to mention reckoning with one’s loser reflection staring back at you in the bathroom mirror.

My father always said, “Live honorably. You have to brush your teeth.”

And yet, beyond the naysaying choruses of “Who do you think you are?” there is the agony of giving so much and ending up with so little. Worse: being laughed at by the people who wouldn’t dare.

For Cash, who spent her early years dodging cries of “nepotism,” who made Rhythm & Romance and brought pop-punk synthesizers as well as a gently finger-picked acoustic guitar ballad “My Old Man” to ‘80s country, then followed the four No. 1s of Kings Record Shop with the darkly brooding Interiors, she followed her gut—and suffered the commentary. She had no choice, in spite of label execs trying to fashion her as the new Linda Ronstadt.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she confesses. “Mostly, I just trusted my gut instincts, and I worked really hard. You can’t downplay persistence; that’s 80 percent of it. You have to show up and keep showing up. I always wanted to write good songs, to write better songs. I didn’t know how to do anything else, not as a default setting; but who else am I in the world if I am not doing that?”

For Cash, who had as many rock critics praising her work throughout her careers as business people looking askance, there was outside validation. For Crowe, who’s also been responsible for the blockbuster Jerry Maguire, the genre-pushing Vanilla Sky and Gen X-defining Singles and Say Anything, the once 15-year-old Rolling Stone critic has seen as many films falter as fly.

In a world of deep cynicism, though, the people who respond to Crowe’s oeuvre are maniacal. Faced with a buyout from a major daily paper, a dear friend turned to Elizabethtown, which challenged the conventional take on success. Suddenly the holidays away from family, the business trips and glamorous events covered started to pale against the reality of what life contains beyond the dazzle.

When he told me the news—he was taking the buyout—I was stunned. Laughing, he went to the line Kirsten Dunst’s bohemian stewardess sing-song’ed at Bloom’s devastated design exec: “You failed! YOU failed! YOUFAILEDyoufailed…”

I didn’t get it.

“Look, I’m walking away from a job I’ll never see the likes of again,” he said. “And I’m going to spend some time living, then figuring out what else there is. Things I’ve never had time to do. Probably a failure to a lot of people. Who walks away from this? And yet, how long do you keep working harder with less resources, fewer people and never knowing when the hammer’s gonna fall?”

I was in shock. I thought it was crazy. This was a major media player. He could do things most people don’t even dream. Not only was he invoking Crowe as part of his exit strategy— and acknowledging he knew what people would think—he carved out life on his terms.

Failing. How bad can it be? When I would think about taking a risk, my father would tell me to look in the mirror and ask myself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Other than being mocked, the stakes are never what we think. Yet, what we don’t examine can paralyze us.

Back in my Rock Criticism class, where the kids’ dug-in boredom was like climbing rock faces every week, the department head checked in to ask how it was going. Explaining I thought I was failing the students, I said I was worried the kids weren’t going to get anything enduring out it. She took it in, then she sighed.

“You know what you should do?” she suggested. “Go in there, and don’t worry about how to do it, just talk to them. Put it out there like only you can. Challenge them—and remember: you’re the adult.”

The adult. If there’s one thing I’m not, it’s a grown-up. I’m also not a quitter.

Armed with resolve, knowing they could mock my lack of cyber-savvy and understanding technology, the fact they knew bands I didn’t, the reality that at their age anyone over 30 who’s not bold-faced famous or giving them a job is suspect, I dug in.

The ever-debating students made the mistake of doing it again, and with all the skills I was trying to teach, I took them on. Then I watched them squirm, several girls in the class swallowing smiles of delight. I kept meeting the thin little objections with more forensics, more thoughts about the music, the artist, the meaning.

But over the next few weeks, I kept encouraging, drawing people out, making them talk—and sometimes making fun of them in a way they saw doesn’t really hurt. It’s the spirit of how we engage that matters, not even when we may say “that is the stupidest thing you could’ve said.”

A little past halfway through the semester, my chief tormentor raised a hand. “Can I give you some advice?” came the question. “I mean, you being a new teacher and all…”

There was no way out. “Go ahead.”

“You know how two weeks ago, you passed out your clippings?”

“Yes,” I replied, tentatively, knowing that sometimes showing people what “it” is empirically beats 10 pounds of notion and theory. Now I was trying to figure out what mistake I’d made.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t ever pass that out any sooner than you did with us…Just in case you were thinking of doing it earlier to, you know, get students to buy in.”

“You wouldn’t?”

“No,” the difficult kid continued. “Because if I’d seen all those LA Times and Rolling Stone and Oxford American and Spin pieces…all of that…”

The words started spacing out. Then, taking a breath, the student finally admitted, “I would’ve dropped the class.”

The entire room burst out laughing. Here, having spent half a semester playing Blind Man’s Bluff, I’d been sure I was failing. I know rock criticism inside out, but I couldn’t get a roomful of students to buy in, to care, to explore beyond the superficiality of the Kim Kardashian nation.

Starting to laugh with them, I was glad I hadn’t surrendered. I probably was failing those first few weeks, unsure and unable to trust my gut. But like Cash, I knew in my core I needed to do it—and like the Grammy-winner, I just kept showing up.

Failure isn’t relative—and in some ways, it’s only final when you quit.

Having taken a year off to finish my Masters and focus on writing, three weeks ago, the email came. Having not been able to offer the class the semester prior, the department head wanted to know if I’d like to come back and teach Rock Criticism again.

Remembering that when I got my report card from the students, I’d received a perfect 5.0 for knowledge and passion and a 4.9 for committing to my students learning the material, I said yes. After all, it’s only in stretching and failing that we learn, grow, move to higher plateaus.