The Magic Behind Four-Time Grammy Winning Musician Rosanne Cash

Featured image courtesy of UI Hancher Auditorium.

On a large stage, blue-purple light floods down to illuminate the stage, crisscrossing on the black curtains in the background. In direct contrast, two cushioned, bright red chairs sit upon the stage, facing both each other and the auditorium. In one chair sits Rosanne Cash, a master of creativity. In the other chair is her long time friend A.M. Homes. 

I sat two rows away from the stage on the right side and felt an immense warmth. It was a blessing to be in the presence of two people who have deeply explored the creative mind. Hancher’s auditorium is massive, but the community there included people from all demographics. What astounded me the most were the people who had lived through the era of her father, Johnny Cash, and then lived to see the moment when Rosanne Cash took the reigns and continued her family’s legacy after the passing of her father. I never lived through that, but listening to Rosanne Cash and A.M. Homes, while sitting in that ambiance, made me feel like I had; it was the way Cash described her father not only as a great man but as a great inspiration, the crowd that talked highly of him upon entering and finding their seats, but also the way Rosanne Cash defined herself not through her father, but by making her life her own.

Rosanne Cash has released 15 studio albums, has been nominated for a grammy 12 times and won four of them, and has also written four novels. A.M. Homes has written a lot of novels and short stories that are well known, including her most recent novel Days of Awe. Cash and Homes came to Hancher on Friday, February 7, to give a talk, and the next night Cash held a concert in the same place.

Sat together on stage, the two didn’t hesitate to discuss the process and inspiration behind their creative endeavors. Rosanne Cash started by telling the audience that science to her is poetic. She detailed a time earlier in her singing career when she visited Harvard as a guest and was offered to talk to a professional in any field she desired. She requested to speak to a professional in the field of theoretical physics; odd, right?

Not to Rosanne Cash. She stated that she soon found that the “language of theoretical physics is poetic,” and supported this claim with physics argot like “event horizon” and “dark matter.” Cash often feeds on the realm of science for inspiration, later saying that science is liberating because it takes a “vast imagination to discover.” 

Rosanne Cash explained how science inspired a few of her songs, one of which is “Particle and Wave.” The ability for light to exist as two things at once, she said, is fascinating. This idea inspired “Particle and Wave because Cash explored whether or not “love [is] strong enough to slow light.”

Part of the talk was also about the use of details and how accuracy and details in themselves are beautiful. In a way, they claimed, creativity is about turning those details, which are quite philosophical by nature, into something more human and digestible. 

Rosanne Cash instructed, “Don’t write about themes…People care about details.” 

Tagged onto this fantastic quote was an anecdote she relayed to us.

She proved her point on the important nature of details when she told the audience a memory that she thinks about often. It occurred at the end of one of her concerts. Cash was frightened about singing her song “House on the Lake,” because she believed it to be too private and detailed for a large audience to understand. It was her first time introducing the song to the public, and she was nervous. When the concert was over, a man came up to her and said, “Everybody’s got their house on the lake.” 

This moment, she explained, was a moment of realization. She came to realize that people bring their own experiences into a creative work, which makes details resonate powerfully. 

“Insecurity is a part of the process”

Rosanne Cash

Homes expressed it as so when she said creative work is about “raw details and putting them together to create a story” because “creativity bleeds together.”

Amidst an inspiring discussion about creativity, its inspiration and the process, Cash and Homes got to talking about advice for people who are, or are looking to become, artists. One main topic of this conversation was the notion of trying to change mediums and looking at things from a new perspective. 

Rosanne Cash said there was a time in her life when she didn’t want to hear her thoughts anymore, and she wanted to take a break from music. In lieu of that, she took up painting but found that the creative process is the same for all mediums. It starts with a burst of inspiration that takes form in an idea, then the inner-critic is put aside in order to complete the work, and finally, the product comes out for revision. 

“Insecurity is a part of the process,” Cash said. Following up on this, A.M. Holmes related that in order to create, one must risk failure. She then said, “It’s about risk and attaching yourself to creative impulses.” For Homes, writing is about work ethic: no one can force you to write, so you have to be committed. 

When the talk between the two ended, the audience was permitted to ask questions. I asked my own question about dealing with a lack of motivation and was delighted with the response I received. As a major in creative writing, the entire talk was so inspirational. It was as if inspiration was shot straight into my stomach through the words of these two women, and I was grateful that I could hear them speak and connect with them.

Going to Rosanne Cash’s concert the next night was heartwarming, because I could see every little thing she said about creativity being translated into something new and artistic in her performance. I could see her mastery in every word she sang, and I could hear the story it told with every note that rang throughout the auditorium. 

From where I sat in the massive crowd, I could tell that everyone was mesmerized by Rosanne Cash’s performance. Not a single phone light could be detected; only wondrous eyes transfixed to the stage and roaring applause when each song came to an end or when a guitarist finished an amazing solo.

Rosanne Cash (right) during a talk at Hancher Auditorium on February 7th along with A.M. Homes (left). Photo by Ashton Hooley.
Rosanne Cash and her band at their Hancher Auditorium performance. Photo by Ashton Hooley.

Rosanne Cash’s singing wasn’t what made the performance fantastic. Instead, it was her transition into every song that was special. Before each song, the guitarists would begin to strum a peaceful melody. To go along with this beat, Cash would begin telling a story, not through song, but in the form of a spoken narrative. She described each song’s beginnings and inspirations, their creation, her attachment to the song itself, and more. These stories took shape in many forms: a civil war story, the tragic history of Emmett Till, and her own family’s life in the “sunken lands.” Her singing is amazing, but the way she smoothly guided her audience into each song with an emotional story was even more so.

When the show was over, the entire crowd stood on their feet, applauded, whistled, and stamped their feet, hungry for more Rosanne Cash. The encore came soon after, and Cash sang one of her most famous songs, “Tennessee Flat-Top Box,” for her audience. She followed with one more song after that, concluding her concert with the best encore one could dream of. It’s safe to say that her audience, including me, were no longer hungry for more once she left the stage a second time.

What sticks with me even now as I write this was something Rosanne Cash said in the middle of her concert. She stood at the foot of the stage and peered around the auditorium. Then, she exclaimed, “We’re creating a community here. That’s what we’re doing.”

She wasn’t wrong.

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