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Rosanne Cash's 'Composed' is an ode to her family

COMPOSED, by Rosanne Cash. Viking, 224 pp., $26.95.

If you're searching this memoir for Hollywood-style details of Rosanne Cash's life, be forewarned that this most literary of songwriters - firstborn to Johnny Cash and Vivian Liberto, stepdaughter to June Carter Cash and a Grammy winner - isn't going to satisfy those salacious cravings. Cash's "Composed" has higher aspirations; it's more a loving, reflective portrait than tawdry tell-all.

"Composed" isn't akin to recent dishes from '80s pop stars such as Pat Benatar, whose numbingly shallow autobiography, "Between a Heart and a Rock Place," (Morrow, $25.99) would be better titled "I Hated My Record Company and I'll Whine Why for 256 Pages" or Go-Go Belinda Carlisle's coke-buzzed bio "Lips Unsealed" (Crown, $26). Written with the same grace and depth Cash imbues in her best songs - country-folk standouts such as "Seven Year Ache" and "On the Surface" - "Composed" seldom makes the reader feel as if anything is missing in this lush, detailed history of her first 55 years.

For instance, that major motion picture about her iconic father? "An egregious oversimplification of our family's private pain, writ large and Hollywood-style" is how Cash sums up the 2005 biopic "Walk the Line."

Cash writes in nonlinear fashion, small but deeply affecting accounts of her life in the House of Cash, of her marriages to men who simultaneously became her music producers (Rodney Crowell and current husband John Leventhal) and the children she shared with each.

"Someone once told me to perform to the 6 percent of the audience who are poets," she writes in a chapter on her performing style. "I often have to find that 6 percent by looking past those who are yawning, glazed over, distracted, unsettled; those who come to try to look through me to see my dad."

No doubt, 94 percent likely will come to "Composed" with "Seven Year Ache" a distant memory, searching for the legendary Johnny Cash. Though his daughter skirts the darkest parts of his storied life, she captures his commanding presence, especially when she describes his last days and reprints the eulogy she delivered.

"Composed" is full of death - and printed eulogies - toward its latter third. In 2003, Cash lost so many family members - father, stepmother, mother, stepsister and an aunt - that she "developed a relationship with the directors of the funeral home" in Tennessee and wound up with a concept album, "Black Cadillac." She recounts her own brain surgery a couple years later.

But from all that pain, Cash has conjured a carefully honed celebrity document that elevates the craft from the norm.

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