Rosanne Cash never thought much of the adage, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
She does now.
In the summer of 1998, the singer-songwriter was working with husband-producer John Leventhal on her first major album in five years when she learned she was pregnant. Then a polyp began to affect her vocal chords. Because she couldn’t sing, the album was put on the shelf.
At first, Cash thought losing her voice wasn’t a big deal. It’ll come back, she said to herself.
“A lot of singers get polyps,” she said recently. “But after the second year that it was gone, I did start to get freaked out. I did have an identity crisis.
“I talked to other singers who had had polyps or who had the surgery. And right at that time, that horrible thing happened to Julie Andrews. It was awful, she couldn’t sing anymore. I was so scared because of that.”
Cash stayed away from her guitar and began to think her recording days were over. She kept busy writing prose – short stories and a children’s book – and taking care of her son, Jake. Anything to keep her mind off her lost singing voice.
By the fall of 2000, Cash noticed her voice slowly coming back. She saw a voice therapist and worked her vocals back into shape. She and Leventhal resumed work on her album, and on March 25, fans finally got what they had been waiting for: “Rules of Travel” (Capitol), perhaps the finest work of Cash’s 22-year career and a strong Grammy candidate.
“It feels so good after all this time,” she said. “I’m glad it took this long, because I really appreciate my job now. I actually feel like supporting this record, for the first time ever.”
She has every reason to be excited. “Rules of Travel” delivers on the goals Cash and Leventhal had set out for it.
“We wanted to draw on all areas of my work, like ‘Closer Than I Appear’ clearly references to the ‘Seven Year Ache’ period; it easily could have come from that album,” she said. “And something like ‘Will You Remember Me’ kind of references to ‘Interiors.’
“We wanted it to be not a nostalgic thing but draw on those periods and sonically be very modern. Also, thematically, I wanted to look up from my navel once in a while – I wanted to be more generous emotionally, using second and third person, rather than always in first person. It’s more of a dialogue that way when you’re looking out on the world observing, rather than bringing what you’ve got on your inside.”
Sheryl Crow guests on the opening track, “Beautiful Plan,” and Steve Earle appears on “I’ll Change For You,” but clearly the album’s centerpiece is Cash’s absorbing duet with her father, Johnny, on “September When It Comes.”
“I was really glad I waited for this song,” she said. “It’s a meaningful song – it’s not just a novelty. It has great meaning for both of us. It was a very poignant experience, too, because he’s so unwell. He had to really dredge it up out of himself to get the energy to do it that particular day.”
Cash couldn’t be any happier for her father, who is creating a huge buzz with his cover version of nine inch nails’ “Hurt,” and its chilling video.
“Everybody’s flipped out over it,” she said. “When I first heard his album (‘The Man Comes Around’) before it came out, ‘Hurt’ was the song that just jumped out at me. I said, ‘God, Dad, that’s one of the best covers I’ve ever heard in my life,’ and of course, the video is devastating. It’s so raw, and it’s so him – raw and straightforward.”
Cash has had a long, fruitful career, scoring 11 No. 1 country hits (including the 1981 crossover classic ‘Seven Year Ache’) and three gold albums, and she has done it on her own terms, never riding her famous father’s coattails.
She wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I knew I wanted to be a writer from my pre-teens,” she said, “but part of my ambivalence about getting into the music business, of course, was the proximity of my dad and the greatness of his work. Why would I want to go into a realm where I would invite comparisons?
“I didn’t want to get too successful. I was constantly questioning my own legitimacy as a recording artist. I don’t think I questioned my legitimacy as a writer so much. I’ve been pretty confident about that, but as a performer, I was like, ‘Why should I be doing this?’ I had incessant conversations with myself and that caused a lot of my ambivalence.
“But now, at my age (she turns 48 on May 24), and having gone through a lot, losing my voice and getting it back, writing prose and developing as a writer, it feels so wonderful to be doing this now.”
Weeks before “Rules of Travel” was released, Cash joined a group of musicians in opposing the United States’ then-impending war with Iraq. She jokes that, judging by the amount of hate mail she has received since, the album will tank. But she’s not worried. She stands by her decision … but she also stands by American troops, regardless of what right-wing critics say.
“I just felt like, if we were going to go after the country that was the most aggressive to us, it would’ve been North Korea,” Cash said. “If we just wanted to go after a country to unseat an evil dictator, there are a lot of choices out there. It seems like the motives are a little murky to me.
“Now, when you question things, you’re seen as anti-American or against the troops, and it doesn’t mean either. I mean, I completely support these people over there. I have nothing but respect for them and compassion. But also, I’m an American and I love being an American.
“People are starting to say it should be illegal to demonstrate – have they ever bothered to read the Constitution, ever?! That’s why we exist!”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “I think it was ‘Beatles ’65.’ It changed my life. I played it on my little turntable over and over and over.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “Besides my dad’s shows, it was either Donovan or Peter, Paul & Mary. Actually, it was probably Peter, Paul & Mary at the Santa Barbara Bowl. It was a great show, and sitting outdoors really made an impression.”
THE WORST JOB I’VE EVER HAD: “In Ventura (Calif.), where I grew up, I was a waitress, when I was 17. It was nasty, horrible, and I was a terrible waitress. … I had to get a job because I wrecked my car and my mom (Vivian Liberto) said I had to pay to get it repaired. … I think I quit the job after one of the busboys grabbed my breasts back in the kitchen. I said, ‘You know what? I quit.’ “
ON THE WEB: rosannecash.com.
BWF (before we forget): The Rosanne Cash album discography – “Rosanne Cash” (Ariola, 1978); “Right or Wrong” (Columbia, 1979); “Seven Year Ache” (1981); “Somewhere in the Stars” (1982); “Rhythm & Romance” (1985); “King’s Record Shop” (1988); “Hits 1979-1989” (1989); “Interiors” (1990); “The Wheel” (1993); “Retrospective” (1995); “10 Song Demo” (Capitol, 1996); “Rules of Travel” (2003); “Black Cadillac” (2006); “The List” (Manhattan/EMI, 2009).
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