She was one of the dominant female country voices throughout the eighties, and the incisive words and music of Rosanne Cash were leagues beyond most of her contemporaries. She was also the daughter of a country music icon and legend, but her own music was so distinctively different from her father’s that one could be excused for not realizing she called Johnny Cash “Dad.”
The eldest child from her father’s first marriage, Cash was raised in Nashville, where she was teased at school for her hillbilly lineage. When her parents split, she moved with her mom to southern California, where she spent a good deal of her late childhood and teenage years. She also began traveling with her father’s road show, soon after she graduated high school. A job on laundry duty eventually developed into backup singing and occasional turns in the spotlight. However, it was believed that her stepsister Carlene Carter was the one with the bright musical future, and Cash was unsure that music was her path. So while she developed as a singer and writer, she also took acting classes and strongly considered pursuing drama.
A German record company approached her to record an album in 1978. She agreed, and enlisted her stepsister’s boyfriend Rodney Crowell to help with the project. The self-titled project was a disaster, but the friendship with Crowell evolved into a long-term relationship. After she signed with Columbia, Crowell became her producer. Her 1979 set Right or Wrong established her in the country market. It sold moderately well and she had mid-charting hits with “Couldn’t Do Nothin’ Right” and a duet with Bobby Bare, “No Memories Hangin’ Around.” Rather than tour, she stayed home to have her first daughter with Crowell, who was now her husband.
She had her big breakthrough in 1981, with the classic album Seven Year Ache. The title cut was a million-seller, and was one of three number one hits from the set, followed by “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train” and “Blue Moon With Heartache.” She dubbed the sound of her new record “punktry”, and it brought a new wave attitude while also embracing the country genre’s traditional past. She was as comfortable covering Merle Haggard (“You Don’t Have Very Far to Go”) as she was pulling a gender-twist on Steve Forbert, making his “What Kinda Guy?” into “What Kinda Girl?”
A second pregnancy made Cash rush to finish a follow-up album, and she would later say of 1982’s Somewhere in the Stars that she had no business making a record at that time, and she wasn’t particularly interested in doing so, either. However, lead single “Ain’t No Money” was still a hit, and it was nominated for a Grammy. When she lost to Juice Newton, she drove home singing to herself, tongue-in-cheek, “I’ve got a new dress, new shoes. I don’t know why you don’t want me.” In a funny twist of fate, the song inspired by the loss, “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,” would win Cash her only Grammy to date.
That song proved the catalyst for what would be the lead single of her fifth album, 1985’s stunning Rhythm & Romance. It was the first set dominated by Cash’s own writing, as she processed her substance abuse (“Halfway House”) and her relationship with her father (“My Old Man.”) The latter song is a beautiful tribute to the man, and an appeal for people to leave him alone so he can enjoy his life without pressure.
The album was a huge hit, topping the charts and providing Cash with a pair of #1 singles, “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me” and the Tom Petty composition “Never Be You.” In the top five single “Second to No One,” Cash declared “I don’t think you know how bad you treat me, but I can’t live like a whore”, which may have prevented the song from going No.1, but certainly pushed the boundaries of country radio’s notoriously conservative nature.
Cash returned in 1987 with her most mainstream country album to date, King’s Record Shop. The successful project would make her the dominant country singles artist of the following year, as it became the first female country album in history to include four #1 hits: “The Way We Make a Broken Heart,” “If You Change Your Mind,” “Runaway Train,” and “Tennessee Flat Top Box.”
“Flat Top” was originally recorded by Johnny Cash, which Rosanne was aware of, but she didn’t know that he had written it. She received some sharp criticism for this from the industry, but her father came to her defense with a full-page ad declaring that he was happy she didn’t know that he’d written it. That meant that she recorded it because it was a great song, not just to please him.
Rodney Crowell’s career heated up around the same time of King’s Record Shop, and Cash had a #1 duet with him from his album, “It’s Such a Small World.” When Cash launched her hits collection in 1989 with a cover of the Beatles classic “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” it too went No.1, Cash’s eleventh chart topper, all of which came in the eighties.
By 1990, Cash began to chafe at the restraints of mainstream country music, and her marriage to Crowell was breaking apart. She released the deeply personal acoustic record Interiors in 1990, her first set of completely self-composed material. While radio didn’t embrace the project, critics did, many calling it a masterpiece. The album would be reissued many years later as part of Sony’s Legacy line, reserved for landmark albums in the label’s catalog.
After her divorce, Cash moved to New York, and released her 1993 pop album The Wheel, which Rolling Stone would later name an essential women’s rock album. In 1996, she released the stripped down set 10 Song Demo, cheekily titled as it had eleven tracks. Cash remarried, and put great energy into writing, art and philanthropic works.
She finally returned to music with 2003’s Rules of Travel. The album featured harmony support from Sheryl Crow on the opening track, “Beautiful Pain.” The project received the most attention for “September When it Comes,” a duet with her father, Johnny Cash. In true form, when Rosanne asked him to sing it with her, he responded that he’d have to hear the song first. It met his approval, and he sang of being taken to “a place where I can rest.” Amazingly, his death came the following September, an eerie coincidence given the song referred to his impending death with that month.
Cash dealt with a tremendous amount of personal loss over the three years following Rules of Travel, losing her father, mother, stepmother and stepsister. She poured her grief into her landmark 2006 collection Black Cadillac, which opened with an old recording of Johnny Cash calling her by name as a child. Songs like “I Was Watching You,” “God is in the Roses” and “The House on the Lake” found her coming to terms with her overwhelming feelings of loss. The album also featured the biting feminist lament “Like Fugitives.”
Cash had to cancel tour dates in November of 2007 for emergency brain surgery. She is expected to make a full recovery, and has already been writing the songwriting blog “Measure for Measure” for the New York Times, the first of which dealt with the aftermath of the surgery.
- “Seven Year Ache”, 1981
- “Blue Moon With Heartache”, 1981
- “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me”, 1985
- “The Way We Make a Broken Heart”, 1987
- “Tennessee Flat Top Box”, 1987
- “September When it Comes”, 2002
- Seven Year Ache, 1981
- Rhythm & Romance, 1985
- King’s Record Shop, 1987
- Interiors, 1990
- The Wheel, 1993
- Black Cadillac, 2006
- Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me”), 1986