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Rosanne Cash walks her own line

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When it comes to cannily delivering a punch line, neither Russell Brand nor Jay Leno has anything on singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash. Arriving at New York hospital about four years ago for brain surgery to relieve long-misdiagnosed chronic pain, a nurse asked her what she was in for.

"Liposuction," Cash deadpanned.

"Her eyes grew wide, and she froze," Cash writes in her new book, "Composed: A Memoir." "I could see her mentally running through the list of possible consequences of her misunderstanding: disciplinary board hearings, lawsuits, job loss

" 'Stop torturing her,' my husband said gently. 'I'm here for brain surgery,' I said and this time smiled."

It's one of many witty, poignant, heartbreaking and disarmingly honest stories Cash has interwoven in her detailed, unconventionally structured autobiography. She has led an extraordinary life — the daughter of country music titan Johnny Cash, an esteemed singer, songwriter and author in her own right — and brain surgery survivor.

The memoir, which entered the New York Times Book Review bestsellers list at No. 20 this week, jumps back and forth across the span of those years, in Cash's search for understanding of her attitudes and behavior. It may disappoint readers looking for a salacious tell-all — a New York Times reviewer lamented the self-control she maintains throughout the book — but it's entirely in keeping with the approach characteristic of Cash's music and demeanor.

"It's just not in my nature to air grievances in public — I find the whole trend deeply appalling," Cash, 55, said during a swing through the Southland recently that included readings and book signings at a couple of area stores.

Impeccably dressed in a black suit, accented with a necklace from which dangled three teardrop pearls, she is passionately conversant in an array of topics, from the predictable (the signature guitar work of Buck Owens collaborator Don Rich) to the surprising (theoretical physics and time travel, which she relished discussing with Harvard physicist Lisa Randall as part of her honorarium for speaking at the university recently).

As for the breakup of Cash's 13-year marriage to singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, during which they had three children, in the book she handles it with tact and empathy.

"We were too similar," she writes in analyzing the road that led to divorce. "While we ruminated dreamily on philosophy and music and metaphysics and art, neither of us knew where to find a post office or how to change the oil in the car or whether we even owned a key to the front door of the house."

In person, she explained, "I couldn't write anything bad about Rodney, because I have children with this man…. Also, I didn't want to blame people.

"I had a great model in my father about this very thing," Cash says. She flew to Paris in 2005 upon the release of the James Mangold-directed biopic "Walk the Line." Despite the wide acclaim Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon received for their portrayals of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, Rosanne recoiled from the film's Hollywood-style portrayal of her mother — Johnny Cash's first wife — Vivian Liberto.

"My father could be incredibly self-destructive and in a lot of psychic pain, and he would never, ever, ever blame anyone else — or purposely hurt someone, or take it out on someone," she said. "To me that defines integrity."

She brings up a word that's been used in conjunction with her own career, going back to her 1977 U.S. debut album "Rosanne Cash," through her commercial breakthrough in 1981 with "Seven Year Ache" to the albums considered her artistic peaks, 1987's "King's Record Shop" and 1990's "Interiors."

Although she's added "author" to her resume in recent years with a series of essays and short stories for various publications, along with her 1996 book "Bodies of Water," she has continued to tour, these days mostly with her second husband, guitarist-producer John Leventhal, whom she married in 1995 and lives with in New York.

She's also sustained her career as a recording artist, most recently with her 2009 album "The List," titled after the list of 100 songs her father gave her and deemed crucial that she get familiar with in order to thoroughly understand American music.

With her autobiography "Composed," Cash saw an opportunity to sort through her life via the music that's always been at the heart of it. She was inspired to some extent by the work of 20th century food writer M.F.K. Fisher, which her editor at Viking had sent her way.

"That kind of cemented the deal for me," she said. "She wrote about her life by writing about food. And I thought, I could write about my life by writing about songs. I liked that peripheral way of approaching things."

Her book ignores conventional chronology, just as does Bob Dylan's acclaimed "Chronicles, Vol. 1," does, a book Cash loved and drew inspiration from, in the way that he drew lessons from life. If there's anyone who is given rough treatment in its pages, it's Cash herself.

She touches on the weight issues she struggled with in her youth and unflinchingly reviews the high and low points of her recordings. Too, she acknowledges the hurt she felt while her father was away from his family for extended periods while on tour, and then her difficulty watching him battle addictions to drugs.

The hardest parts?

"Writing about my parents' deaths was very difficult emotionally," she said. "In fact, I didn't want to do it. I kept calling my editor, going, 'This is too hard, I can't do it.' But I had to. How can you write a memoir without it? It was too important in my life.

"I guess what was hard technically was fitting it together like a puzzle, because I knew I wasn't going to do a straight linear thing," she said. "It really was like working a puzzle."

randy.lewis@latimes.com

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