New ‘Rules’ Rosanne Cash rewrites expectations

By Mark Guarino

Six years ago, Rosanne Cash wrote most of the songs for her new album and prepared to record them. Then, silence. Cash lost her voice.

She developed a polyp, a complication of her recent pregnancy, which shut down her vocal chords. Two and a half years of relative silence went by and she couldn’t pick up a guitar. “It was so depressing,” she said. “It was an identity crusher.”

Without a voice, she returned to writing fiction and essays, which she embarked on years earlier. A children’s book was published in 2000. When she found she could sing again, she set out work on “Rules of Travel” (Capitol), her first album in seven years. A sobering intersection of introspective folk pop and bittersweet country, the album continues the turn Cash took in 1990 with “Interiors” (Columbia), an artistic watershed where she started writing darker relationship songs, not exactly what her fans had come to expect from her hitmaking years in the early and mid-‘80s.

“I had a defining moment one day in the studio making ‘King’s Record Shop’,” her previous album, Cash said. “I thought, ‘I could go on with the rest of my life making good records or I could go ahead and take the plunge that’s deeper and richer.’ And I did. That changed everything for me.”

Two years after the release of “Interiors,” she divorced Rodney Crowell, the singer-songwriter who produced her original demo in 1978. She later moved to New York City and married John Levanthal, her producer and songwriting collaborator who had a previous long-running collaboration with Shawn Colvin. The couple raise five children, three from her previous marriage.

The new life has meant a shift in her sound, from upbeat, commercial country to stripped-down roots music. She acknowledges that she saw a change in her fan support. “I lost some, but I gained some. I lost some of the people who were exclusively country fans, but I gained my gay audience. Which has been incredibly satisfying,” she said, laughing.

Her new album places a heavy emphasis on the words. “Closer Than I Appear” takes its cue from her period of silence and the new kind of intimacy it introduced. “If I seem angry and cold/or I don’t speak at all/well it’s just that old fear/’cause baby, I’m closer than I appear,” she sings.

“I’ll Change For You” is a love song bordering between passion and obsession. Sung as a call-and-response with Steve Earle, Cash bargains with a host of promises, including the line, “I’ll let go my past, write your name in my skin/I’ll travel through time to love you again.”

The song that she knew would receive the most attention is “September When It Comes.” She wrote it, thinking of her father, Johnny Cash, whose health was just starting its decline. “I cannot move a mountain now/I can no longer run/I cannot be who I was then/In a way, I never was,” her father sings. He died soon after, in September of 2003.

“I was thinking of him in the larger context of thinking of mortality and … losing your parents and what that means when someone with half of your DNA leaves the planet,” she said. “It was more about me … about coming to terms with the past and the future and what you can’t change. The kind of stuff you go through when you’re forty.”

She is the eldest daughter of the Cash family, born to her father and his first wife, Vivian Liberto. In her early years, she sang as a backup singer in his band, but mostly she took great pains to separate herself from his stardom, living mostly in California.

“I was wanting so bad to establish myself on my own and not be seen as using him or taking advantage of him and wanting to define myself as myself. It became my default position, But it was so obvious I should do that song with him,” she said.

She said what she learned most from her father was “integrity and character.” Like Johnny Cash, she suffered bouts with substance abuse, went to rehab and became critical of the country music mainstream. “He taught me about not blaming other people for your own mistakes and the commitment to not just artistic statements but to an artistic life,” she said.

Another trait she is just beginning to realize she shares with her father is that, at age 49, she has achieved “elder status.” It came with news last week that her record label is releasing an “essential” CD of her past work. Her reaction was mixed: “I thought, ‘wow, that’s fantastic’ but also, ‘wow, that makes me feel old’.”

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