Feature Interviews - Music
Interviews A to E > Rosanne Cash
The Rules of Returning
by Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2003 PopEntertainment.com. All rights
April 2, 2003.
It's sometimes funny the changes life puts you through.
In 1990, Rosanne Cash was on top of the world. Her album, Interiors,
was a crowning achievement in a career that had been on the fast track for
over a decade.
Cash had to overcome the blessing and the curse of being
the daughter of Johnny Cash, an iconic figure in country music. She
became a country music star with her 1981 album Seven Year Ache and
its crossover success title track. She never looked back, penning and
recording classic Music City hits like "I Don't Know Why You Don't Want Me,"
"Blue Moon With Heartache" and "It's Such A Small World," her duet
with then-husband Rodney Crowell. Her music won her accolades and
twenty-one Top 40 Country singles... fifteen of them went Top 10. Her marriage to singer/songwriter/producer Crowell
had also made her Music City royalty. But Rosanne Cash never felt
comfortable being boxed into the country niche. Her songs embraced
rock and roll, doo wop, blues and folk as well as country.
Interiors topped many best album lists in 1990. The album may have been greatly inspired by the
fracturing of her marriage to Crowell, but it was also significant for
signaling her divorce from country music. At least the country music
that was coming out of Nashville. Interiors dug deeper than the
country programmers who were pushing songs like "Achy Breaky Heart" and
"Friends In Low Places" were willing to look. Highly autobiographical
(though Cash has often insisted it isn't quite as true to life as everyone
assumes), Interiors was a brilliant, introspective album more on the
par of something from Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen or Tom
Waits than Faith Hill or Leann Rimes.
It was followed up by the lovely (and significantly more
hopeful) album The Wheel, which was also the first album she had
produced by her soon-to-be husband John Leventhal. Three years later,
she released 10 Song Demo, which was exactly what its title suggests,
ten demos of new songs. And then, there was nothing. Seven years
have passed since 10 Song Demo... ten since her last complete studio
album... What happened to Rosanne Cash?
Cash had started working on the album that would become
Rules of Travel in 1998. As always, life comes in and
complicates the best laid plans. Rosanne got pregnant. Her
father was also in ill health. (ed. note: soon after this article
was published, Rosanne's stepmother, June Carter Cash, passed away.)
a medical problem, Cash lost her singing voice for an extended time. The fact that she couldn't sing wasn't going to stop
Rosanne from writing, though. She wrote the critically acclaimed short
story collection Bodies of Water, a children's book and many magazine
But now Rosanne Cash' voice has returned and she has come
back with an album that deserves mention with her classics. Now that Rules of Travel
is finally coming out, Cash is getting more rapturous critical notices.
It's almost like she had never left. Cash was kind enough to sit down
with us to discuss the voyage that led to Rules of Travel.
Im sure youre probably getting a little tired of talking about this, but
because of a polyp you could not sing for a few years. How frustrating was
that and did you worry you may never sing again?
It didnt worry me at first, because I was pregnant.
was mostly concerned with having a baby and taking care of this baby. So, I
didnt really think much about it. I wasnt in a mode where I wanted to
work a lot, anyway. Also, I knew a lot of singers whod had vocal polyps, so
it didnt seem like such a big deal to me. But, it was complicated, because
they thought the polyps were hormone related from my pregnancy.
doctor cancelled my surgery, and we had to take this gamble of seeing if my
voice was going to come back. I was very frightened of the
surgery. It [had] just happened with Julie Andrews, and she lost her
voice. So, it was kind of scary. But, it wasnt really until the end of the
second year that I thought, wow, I might not ever get my voice back. That
became a dark night of the soul. That was painful.
When did you know you would be able to sing again?
It was towards the end of 2000. I
started being able to hold a note. And then, I had maybe four or five
notes. And, then I had an octave. Then, I saw that maybe I had a couple
octaves, but I didnt have much stamina. I started working with a vocal
therapist, and he got my voice back in shape.
In the time between albums, you have been very busy as a writer of prose,
releasing an acclaimed short story collection with
Bodies of Water, a childrens book
and magazine articles. How did it feel to do well in a different medium?
It is tremendously satisfying.
Annie Liebovitz is doing this book on roots musicians and she asked me to
write an essay for the book. I just wrote it and I met with the editor
and its all finished. I feel as proud of that essay as I do of any song.
Its tremendously fulfilling. But, there is something so special about
songwriting. Fitting that poetry into a three-minute framework and the
thats a discipline. Thats wonderful.
I think Rules of Travel is a terrific single, it could make a really
interesting sort of left-field hit.
From your mouth to Gods ears.
At this point in your career with all the respect youve gotten, do you
still think in terms of getting hits?
Not on this record. I dont have any
illusions. There is not really much opportunity at radio for a record like
this. Or, for a woman my age, for that matter. (Laughs)
You know what I mean? Its not really geared to the kind of music I do.
But there are formats. Theres AAA.
Theres the public stations that are playing it, which is nice. It just means I
have to be more creative in trying to deliver it to its audience.
Im a huge fan of the Odds Bedbugs
so I was sort of surprised after listening to the album a few times that
Beautiful Pain was written by the Odds'
leader Craig Northey, particularly because the song
sounded so much like one of your songs. How did he get involved in the
We love the Odds, too.
We are huge fans.
John asked him if he would write something for me.
He sent us Beautiful Pain. I was struck, too, by how ME it sounded. He really got inside me.
It was almost disconcerting.
There are also songs by Jakob Dylan & Joe Henry and Marc Cohn on the album.
I saw in an interview that you said that you would have preferred for half
the songs on Rules of Travel to be
written by other people, which was sort of surprising for such a respected
songwriter. Why did you feel that way?
At that time. Right now Im glad that I only took three
outside songs. But when we started to get the material together, I had
reached saturation point with me. (laughs) You know? I just didnt
want to deal with my thoughts and my feelings. I wanted some relief. But,
I dont feel like that now.
44 Stories is a lovely song. Ive heard you are doing a book with the
same title. How is the idea of sharing your life as a series of short
stories appeal to you?
I was thinking, what was one of the most
profound expressions of love? To me, it would be if someone wanted to know
all of your stories. Every year of your life.
They would go to any lengths
to hear those stories,
and would respect them, and listen as carefully as
they possibly could. Thats kind of the idea that inspired the song.
I love mixing up my genres. Id already started to write this book, so I thought, well,
Im going to call it 44 Stories.
Over the years you have performed with your father live occasionally, but I
believe September When It Comes was the first time you had recorded with
Why did you decide to work with him on this song, and what was it like?
didnt plan it. In fact, I recorded the song
by myself. At the end, John said, You should ask your dad to sing on
this. I resisted for a long time. He said it several times.
He would keep bringing it up every few weeks. I said, no, its just an
invitation for people to think its a novelty and Im using my dad. He
said, No, its this song. I decided he was right. So I asked
my dad and he did it. Its kind of
its really important to me now.
Im so happy we did it. At this point, I really dont care what other
people think about it. Im just so happy I shared that with my dad.
I know that most of the songs were written before the World Trade Center
tragedy, but as a New Yorker do you feel that affected the course of the
recording of the album?
it affected me. It affected the life that I brought back to the project
when we began to finish it. Also, I wrote the verses to Rules of Travel
after 9-11. That line, When do the walls tumble down/Into the sky, into
the stars and the ground. That was directly inspired by that.
Western Wall was also on
10 Song Demo. I remember at the time that album
was released it was said that you may be recording all the songs from that
album again. Obviously, many things happened in your life after that, but
why did you decide you wanted to try this song again?
Two reasons. First, you know, its lifted
exactly from 10 Song Demo except it has a new guitar line.
Okay, I didnt realize it was quite that
close. Ill have to listen to the older version again.
Its just a new guitar solo. Two reasons. One, John said, you know its
one of your best songs and not that many people heard it on 10 Song Demo,
it really should have another chance to get out there. I agreed with
that. And two -- what was going on in the world. Im not an anti-war
protest writer. I mean, I certainly am anti-war, but I havent written
about it so directly. I thought, God, Id love to put a song that had a
sense of compassion between cultures and kind of a spiritual framework.
Just a gesture of compassion.
been years, at the very least since before
Interiors, since your
music has been thought of as country music. Even when you were working in
Nashville, you never really fit the mold, going off in directions like rock
and pop and R & B in albums like Rhythm & Romance
and songs like Seven Year Ache and I Wonder and Pink Bedroom and
Never Be You. The surprising thing is for as button-down a music scene as
Nashville has been and still often is, they do seem to have opened up a bit
more to experimentation. Do
you think that more open-minded artists like yourself and Steve Earle and
Dwight Yoakam helped open that door?
dont know that it is more open. I mean, look at the backlash that Steve
Earle got for Jerusalem. People thinking that he was writing a
pro-Taliban song, for the love of God. Or look at the backlash the Dixie
Chicks got; just for exercising their right as Americans for freedom of
Well, I was speaking more musically than politically. Like for example,
know these are bad cases in point, but look at Shania Twain and Faith Hill. They
are being sold as country artists, but they really arent. Theyre pop
They are pop singers. Thats what I
think... that country radio plays pop records now.
country radio play Lucinda [Williams] or Steve Earle?
Not really, theyre mostly in AAA.
that interesting? Theyre more country than any singer today
even your fathers Hurt, which is a brilliant single by one of the giants
of country music, and country stations wont touch it.
Its fascinating, isnt it? The radio
formats and what theyre called dont actually reflect what they play.
In the end, how would you like people to see your music?
Its a little dangerous for me to get
outside myself and think about how I want people to see me. Because that
takes me out of being authentic
But, I would like them to see that Im
a serious writer. Basically, that I respect and belong to the tradition of
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