I’m worried about me: Rosanne Cash

This omnibus forced me at the time to think about what I love most about New Wave’s far-reaching influence. On Rhythm & Romance, my second favorite Rosanne Cash album, the songs sound like Rosanne shown on the sleeve: dyed pink, hurt but reticent. I’ll retract one sentence in this nine-year-old review, and so will you — the one about Rosanne making better records than Johnny. But I’m so sick of college students buying goddamn Johnny posters where he’s sticking a birdie at the camera that I want to make case for the exemplary albums she released through 1990, after which she ossified into a benevolent roots rock progenitor. And King’s Record Shop remains safely amid my top ten albums ever.

Rosanne Cash
Seven Year Ache/King’s Record Shop/Interiors

It’s tempting to believe that in a better world, Rosanne Cash would inspire as much love and reverence as her father Johnny, but since no such world exists I’ll assert this instead: Rosanne made better albums than her old man, was the far more compelling figure, and because she created no mythos to live up to, her music can be savored both for its own sweet sake and, thanks to Columbia’s reissue of her three seminal albums, for those interested in how a woman’s quest for independence can return her to the uncertainty she sought to outgrow.

Cash wasn’t overlooked during her salad years. Between 1981 and 1989 she scored 11 #1’s (an astonishing figure) and a lone Hot 100 Top 40 hit in “Seven Year Ache.” In mowing contempo-country’s lawn, she had more to do with making the world safe for the glossy pleasures of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain than any of her peers. At a time when titans like Dolly Parton—earnestly shoving her bosom into mainstream radio with “Heartbreaker” and “Islands in the Stream”—gussied up their arrangements with mercenary abandon, Cash employed synthesizers, big drums, and hot guitar licks with an almost scary confidence; it forces one to quote Manny Farber on the genuine subversion of termite art versus white elephant art. If I were to describe what Cash sounded like at her peak, it’d be something like this: imagine Chrissie Hynde playing Pat Benatar’s “Invincible” with John Mellencamp’s band.

The sound’s not there on 1981’s Seven Year Ache, and neither is the look; check out Cash’s Linda Ronstadt bangs, which should provide some indication as to what she and producer/husband Rodney Crowell were aiming for: studio-pop with Nashville undertones—hell, overtones on “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train,” a boppin’ concession to the good ol’ boys, worried she’d gone all Kim Carnes on us. The credits read like a Most Wanted List of contemporary musical consigliere: Hank DeVito, Larrie Londin, Clifford Carter, and a young nobody offering angelic harmonies named Vince Gill. While Cash wrote only two songs, don’t blame writers’ block: Her love of songcraft, no matter who gets ASCAP recognition, matches the generosity of her emotions. “Only Human” is the first entry in a trilogy (King’s Record Shop’s “The Real Me” and Interiors’ “Real Woman” are the others) in which Cash explores the tensions between the public and private; for directness, “I’m only human and you treat me like I’m not” sure beats David Hume. The album’s masterpiece is the lilting self-penned title track, in which the conversational cadence of her voice—note how she savors polysyllables before spitting them– do wonders for the rather cryptic lyrics.

The confusion over the is-it-a-pedal-steel guitar-or-a-synth hook on “Seven Year Ache” epitomized Cash’s dilemma: Nashville or L.A. nü-new wave? Choice number two, please, and thus the shamefully out-of-print Rhythm & Romance (1985) and getting a pink dye job to match the teased-up arrangements. Nashville caviled though, despite two more number-ones, whereupon she and Crowell recorded the album of their lives. With all apologies to late Steely Dan and Ms. Ronstadt, King’s Record Shop is the finest studio-rock ever recorded; imagine songs as tough as Fleetwood Mac’s 1975 eponymous album, with playing to match, and Cash channeling Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie, and Lindsey Buckingham and you get an idea of her achievement. She’s now a super-sponge, covering John Stewart, John Hiatt (turning “The Way We Make A Broken Heart” into a gauzy homosexual reverie) and Johnny Cash himself. Her singing has never been finer. Note the terrified way in which she whispers “I’m worried about you, I’m worried about me” in the big (country) hit “Runaway Train”; or how her dusky contralto won’t cede an inch to bathos on “I Don’t Have To Crawl.” With DeVito and the Mellencamp guitarist she can now afford (Larry Crane) injecting muscle and grit into Crowell’s tautest arrangements, the likes of “Somewhere, Sometime” and “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” register as intense psychodramas and great pop songs, depending on your tolerance. But “Rosie Strikes Back” wants it both ways: a spousal abuse number qua self-empowerment ode, in which the drums and guitars snap, slap, whip, and whirl in a furious simulation of the beat-up wife’s eventual exit.

King’s Record Shop should have crossed over; 1987 was good for boomer-pop (Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night was a big hit). In a typical example of Cash’s perversity she fired her band, divorced Crowell, and recorded her own Rumours. Self-produced, with Cash writing or co-writing every song, Interiors is rather too hushed for its own good. To her credit her commitment to documenting emotional states in pitiless detail scrubs off the confessional banality and—even more impressively—narcissism. Which is a pity. Cash’s taste, whether in musicians or songs, is always first-rate; but when she aspires to Good Taste she often sounds pallid, an earnest woman with a Suzanne Vega jones (naturally, Interiors was her biggest critical hit). She’s smart enough to be aware of the trap—one track’s even called “On The Surface”—but too honest to renege on following her impulses, even when they’re the wrong ones.

The rest is silence, exile, and not enough cunning. Interiors lost Cash most of her audience; its follow-up, 1993’s The Wheel alienated whoever remained. She got what she wanted: Now what? As a case study in the perils of self-reliance, the direction of her career suggests that she produced her best work when she balked at the limitations of genres, be they country or pop. Like most of the greats in popular music—and Rosanne Cash is surely in their company—she confounded expectations one album at a time. That’s all we can ask for—besides deluging Columbia with requests to reissue Rhythm & Romance.

One thought on “I’m worried about me: Rosanne Cash

  1. I agree absolutely about the relative quality of her work before and after 1989 or so. In fact RC is an exemplary case of someone who achieved her goal (of being a NPR-endorsed Singer Songwriter) and in the process lost everything that made her music appealing—except, I guess, her modestly lovely voice.

    That sounds cruel, and it’s true that Cash has never seemed like anything less than a thoughtful, sincere, smart, principled woman. But her art from the past 25 years—her music, her book, the reminiscences she’s published in the Oxford American etc.—is to my mind completely without interest.

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