Early in 1980, when I was fifteen years old, I was reading an issue of Rolling Stone magazine and came across a “tandem” record review, one of the subjects of which was Rosanne Cash’s first Columbia album, Right or Wrong.1 Although she had made some appearances on her father Johnny’s albums, I was not familiar with her at all. The piece, while not quite a rave, was very positive, calling her a “firebrand,” and it succeeded in piquing my interest.2 The first time I actually heard her was about a year later, when the title track to her next album, Seven Year Ache, became a hit3 and made me a fan.
Cash’s singing affected me, then as now, in all those cliché ways: the hair on the back of the neck standing up, the goosebumps, the breath taken away. She has stated that she’s never thought of herself as a singer in the same way that, say, Emmylou Harris is a singer, but the sultry, emotive quality of her voice makes her one of my favorite vocalists ever.
In the mid-1980s, Cash was riding high on the success of her number one album Rhythm and Romance and her Grammy win for the single “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,”4 which she wrote with her then-husband Rodney Crowell. Her exquisite vocals notwithstanding, it is Cash’s songwriting which definitively places her in my group of musical icons. However, while finishing work on King’s Record Shop,5 for which she wrote only three songs, she had a growing lack of in faith in herself. This feeling manifested itself in a dream in which she was at a party sitting on a sofa with Linda Ronstadt, who was deep in conversation with an elderly man called Art, who sat between them. When Cash attempted to join in, he turned to her in disdain and spat out, “We don’t respect dilettantes” before returning his attention to Ronstadt.
Cash was badly shaken by the dream, and, feeling her success was hollow, vowed to change her approach to songwriting, her work ethic, her life.
In 1990, on Interiors, her follow-up to King’s Record Shop, as per her vow, the subject matter of the songs was broader, the emotional content more complex, and it was her first album for which she wrote or co-wrote all the songs. Upon hearing it, I wondered why she hadn’t been writing the bulk of her material all along. It’s a spare, largely acoustic record about disappointment in oneself and others, about disillusionment in personal relationships, about the disparity between image and reality. It was not a hit. It also soured her relationship with Columbia’s Nashville division, but it was a gauntlet thrown down, marking a turning point in the musical path on which she has not made an artistic misstep in her seven subsequent albums.
Although Cash was born in Memphis and lived in Nashville from her mid-twenties to her mid-thirties, she doesn’t consider herself a Southerner; she grew up in California and has lived in New York City for over thirty years. Cash and her husband/collaborator John Leventhal started making regular road trips through the South in 2011, when Arkansas State University began raising money to restore the childhood home of her father. Those visits inspired the songs that would become the 2014 album The River & the Thread, a travelogue through the geographic, musical, spiritual, and emotional aspects of the American South. Cash presents, via narratives from the lives of other people, real and fictional, a cinematic picture of not only the region, but of her own family history. “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” the opening track, sets the stage for the rest of the album with a tour through Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas in which the Mississippi River becomes a metaphoric thoroughfare to the past, a connection to the people whose stories she tells.
I found The River & the Thread to be shockingly good, even for an artist whose work I’d admired for over thirty years. In April 2014 I saw Cash at the Miner Auditorium in San Francisco; the first half of the show was made up of the eleven songs from this album. I’ve seen her perform many times, but seeing Cash sing these songs, this album in its entirety while it was still so startling and new, made for a truly transcendent evening. The record had been out just three months, but I had already come to think of it as a profound piece of work, one so evocative and beautiful I knew I would be able to draw inspiration from it for years to come.
Cash’s latest single, “Crawl Into the Promised Land,” was released over forty years into her recording career, just prior to the 2020 US Presidential election. It is an indictment of those who wield power indiscriminately and without consequence, a call to action to the disenfranchised and those who share their outrage, an ode to those who aspire to make the world a better place.
The night is long, but no one sleeps
The grifters make us pay
Torches burn and mothers weep
Deliver us from judgment day
And don't it feel like home
Don't it feel like we belong
You gotta lift your head and raise your hand
And crawl into the promised land6
Rosanne Cash: singer, songwriter, firebrand.
1 The other record was Two Sides to Every Woman by Carlene Carter, whose work I also greatly admire. Coincidentally, I believe Johnny Cash’s Silver was also reviewed in the same issue.
2 Admittedly, the fetching photo on the album cover was partially responsible for my reaction. Ditto for Two Sides to Every Woman.
3 In 1981, the “Seven Year Ache” single peaked at number 22 on the Billboard Top 40 chart and became Cash’s first number one on the Billboard Country chart.
4 Best Country Vocal Performance, Female (1985).
5 The 1987 album which is still her most commercially successful, spawning four number one hits and reaching number 6 on the Billboard Country Album chart.
6 Written by Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal. Published by Chelcait Music (SESAC) and Lev-A-Tunes (ASCAP).