A musical memoir, Black Cadillac finds Cash channeling the pain of losing her stepmother June, her father Johnny, and her mother Vivian within a two-year period into her most personal album yet. A dark and often moody reflection on her life, Black Cadillac displays some strokes of genius and is easily the best album of her career.
It was also split down the middle with producers- half the tracks were produced by her husband John Leventhal while the other half was produced by Bill Bottrell. This split personality in production didn’t hinder the project one bit as both producers contributed to the greater whole of the project.
The centerpiece of the record, “I Was Watching You” is my favorite song she’s ever recorded. Solely written by Cash, it’s the haunting tale of a child watching their parent’s love affair from heaven long before conception. It then twists in the end to the parent watching the child from heaven, after they’ve died. A bleak tale, it’s so beautifully orchestrated and is so effortlessly perfect, you can’t help but be in awe of a master at work. The piano-laced production adds the ideal amount of heaviness to the track, grounding the tale in just enough sorrow without going overboard.
Another such song is “House on the Lake,” a personal reflection about the Hendersonville, Tennessee residence Johnny and June called home. The property, while undergoing a complete restoration by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, burned to the ground in 2007. “House” serves as a lasting legacy to the place with the “Blue bare room, the wood and nails” where “there’s nothing left to take” because “love and years are not for sale.” There’s something uniquely special in this tale about home – introspection is rarely executed this masterfully. More than the average where I’m from song, “House” stands as a legacy to a home that natured one of country music’s greatest love stories.
And it’s that elevation from ordinary to a sense of importance that binds Black Cadillac. These aren’t just rants of a grieving woman but rather reflections of the life Cash was brought into and the legacy she now has to uphold. But it’s how she honors her parents that make this album truly shine.
In the opening track, we hear some faint crackling before the familiar voice, seemingly from beyond the grave, chimes in with “Rosanne C’mon.” From there Cash launches into “Black Cadillac” which juxtaposes the hearse that brought her father to his funeral with the car he used to drive. The production is cloudy yet doesn’t intrude on our ability to focus on the lyrics. And in another gesture of honor, the horns at the end of the song are meant to recall the distinctive horn work from her dad’s “Ring of Fire.”
What follows, “Radio Operator” is easily the most rocking song on the whole project. It comes as a bit of a jolt after the somber opening while “Burn Down This Town,” a song about Johnny’s love of fire, continues this rollicking trend.
“God Is In The Roses” is a haunting tale of reemergence and self-discovery. It isn’t so much about the omnipresent nature of the universe, but rather of redefining the meaning of place in the deepest parts of our souls – “The sun is on the cemetery/Leaves are on the stones/There never was a place on earth/That felt so much like home.” I’ve never heard it put that way before, but the transcendent power of the graveyard is very palpable.
The rest of the album follows suit in brilliantly articulating Cash’s sense of loss. “The World Unseen” is another tale of descent, this time into the unknown world of life without your guiding force. What on some level could be viewed as a simple break-up ballad is rendered so much more in the imagery Cash conveys – “You must be somewhere in the stars/’Cause from a distance comes the sound of your guitar.” Her ability to convey so much with very little only heightens the beauty of this song, as does the simple production of piano and light drums. They give the song just enough without overpowering the message.
“Like Fugitives” attacks the bitter side of grief, where anger replaces any sense of compassion. The theme of life without is still present here yet it’s everyone else’s inability to understand that insights the rage – “It’s a strange new world we live in/Where the church leads you to hell/And the lawyers get the money/For the lives they divide and sell.” With that line, Cash perfectly articulates the weirdness of a dead parent and the mess the children are left with in their wake. As with “God Is In The Roses” she accurately puts into words what is often hard to communicate. And the understated production fits the song perfectly.
In listening to this album, I am in awe of how well Cash was able to put every emotion of grief into words. She’s made a very special album here, one relatable to anyone who has lost a parent or a grandparent. I especially like the sentiment behind “0:71,” the closing track which finds 71 seconds of silence for each year of her parent’s natural lives. Sometimes the perfect way to honor someone is by saying nothing at all.
Only one very slight complaint has hindered my enjoyment of this exceptional musical project. As a listening experience, Black Cadillac is weighted down with heaviness and too many similarly produced tracks leave need for variety. I’ve owned the project since its release in 2006, and have only really been into the first half of the album. But this isn’t a fault of anyone involved – the album perfectly conveys the grief and sorrow one feels when your elders have ascended into heaven. And for that, Black Cadillac elevates musical memoirs to new and exciting heights.
This is a very worthy addition to anyone’s music collection and essential listening for anyone who’s lost a parent or grandparent. Copies are very easy to find in either digital or hard copy from both Amazon and iTunes.