100 Greatest Women, #14: Rosanne Cash

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

#14

Rosanne Cash

2008 Edition: #20 (+6)

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 then left the mainstream country music scene behind, and eventually became a stalwart of the burgeoning Americana music scene.

The eldest child from her father’s first marriage, Cash was raised in Nashville, where she was teased at school for her hillbilly lineage as Johnny Cash’s daughter. 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 country 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 made a full recovery, and was performing again by 2008. In 2009, she released The List, a covers project inspired by a list her father gave her of the most important songs in history.  The acclaimed collection earned her an Album of the Year trophy at the Americana Music Honors & Awards ceremony in 2010.  Cash released her memoir, Composed, in 2010, which documented the development of her craft throughout her life.

In 2013, she signed with Blue Note Records.  Her first release for the label came in early 2014. The River & the Thread received universal critical acclaim, lauded for its unique perspectives on the American south.  Cash won three Grammy awards for the project in 2015.  Later that year, she was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

In 2018, she received an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music.  The honor came as she prepared to release her fourteenth studio album, She Remembers Everything, scheduled for release in October.

Essential Singles

  • Seven Year Ache, 1981
  • Blue Moon With Heartache, 1981
  • I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me, 1985
  • Never Be You, 1985
  • The Way We Make a Broken Heart, 1987
  • Tennessee Flat Top Box, 1987
  • Runaway Train, 1988
  • The Wheel, 1993
  • September When it Comes (with Johnny Cash), 2002
  • A Feather’s Not a Bird, 2014

Essential Albums

  • Seven Year Ache, 1981
  • Rhythm & Romance, 1985
  • King’s Record Shop, 1987
  • Interiors, 1990
  • The Wheel, 1993
  • Black Cadillac, 2006
  • The River & the Thread, 2014

Industry Awards

  • Americana Music Honors & Awards
    • Album of the Year
      • The List, 2010
    • Spirit of Americana/Free Speech Award, 2018
  • Grammy Awards
    • Best American Roots Recording
      • A Feather’s Not a Bird, 2015
    • Best American Roots Song
      • A Feather’s Not a Bird, 2015
    • Best Americana Album
      • The River & the Thread, 2015
    • Best Female Country Vocal Performance
      • I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me, 1986
  • Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, 2015

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

Next: #13. Dixie Chicks

Previous: #15. Shania Twain

 

12 Comments

  1. Me on…

    The countdown: I’m wondering how long until we’ll get the last dozen. I still haven’t seen Patty Loveless, and at this rate, the top two (I’m certain that Dolly Parton is still on top in 2018) will probably show up in late October.
    Rosanne Cash: I can’t bring myself to get into her, and I dunno why.

  2. The large jump seems appropriate to me. I wasn’t a fan of some of the early country music but her mid and later career releases have a lot of very good stuff. I like her voice as well. it isn’t the biggest or best but it suits her music very well.

  3. Rosanne has been putting great content throughout the years. I love her King’s Record Shop, Black Cadillac, and The River & the Thread albums. They’re great albums.

  4. At this point, it seems you guys are drawing names out of a hat. Don’t get me wrong, Cash has put out some good music, but to place her above Barbara Mandrell, Tanya Tucker, and Linda Ronstadt seems questionable.

    Cash’s chart run was pretty much for a single decade in the 80s. After she and Crowell divorced, I don’t think she ever had another top 20 hit. Maybe it would help if we had some idea of the methodology you’re using to rank these ladies.

  5. I think the criteria used here on the list is not only chart placement, be it albums or singles, but also artistry. So much is made about how commercially successful an artist is, and how much more successful that artist has to be in order to stay in the public eye. But the truth is that all great artists try to transcend mundane commercialism for what they feel in themselves.

    Rosanne is clearly in that class (IMHO).

  6. I’ve mentioned it in comments before, and I’m happy to do so again.

    The three major contributing factors to changes on this list compared to 2008, in no particular order:

    1. Music released between 2008 and 2018.
    2. Expansion of the list’s scope to weigh more heavily achievements in Americana and international success.
    3. Input from the entire writing staff instead of just me.

    A fourth, minor contributing factor was adjustments among mainstream artists where I overcorrected for my own personal tastes in 2008, but that only impacted a couple of rankings where I put my favorite artists a little lower than they should’ve been last time around.

  7. I have to agree with CAJ on this. I know you mention looking at 2008 through 2018, but this list is supposed to be all time. This placement is a good example. Roseanne is extremely talented and critically acclaimed, but in no way is she more influential than singers such as Mandrell and Tucker. I do still respect this list as I know I totally understand if you asked 100 experts you would get a hundred different opinions. So before you tell me how I am wrong just remember, it’s ok that we have different opinions.

  8. Always liked Rosanne better than her father. Besides Kevin’s great write-up, thanks to Michael A for the Billboard article. Loved Rosanne’s NY Times editorial of October 3, 2017.
    Favorite RC songs:
    Seven Year Ache
    The Way We Make a Broken Heart
    I Wonder

  9. On the rankings, I think longevity should count as well as the ability to grow and change. Artists such as Rosanne Cash and Lee Ann Womack have continued to put out good music as their time in the spotlight declined due to age and/or changing tastes.

    Criticizing placing Rosanne Cash over Barbara Mandrell because Cash was only on the charts for a decade doesn’t seem fair as Mandrell really only had about a decade of real popularity. The fact that Cash has continued to put out quality music (regardless of hit charts) is a point in her favor. You could argue Cash versus Linda Ronstadt but a big portion of Ronstadt’s career was pop-rock and not country. There is always going to be some room for debate but I think Rosanne Cash is basically where she belongs.

    Personally I might have had the Dixie Chicks down a few more spots.

  10. This is poor journalism on your part, it’s obvious the list was mostly copied and pasted while little effort was done to correct the few changes that have happened between 2008-2018.
    Right around the part where her first Grammy was highlighted the article states “…her only Grammy to date”. I wish you all would pay better attention to details besides the rollout of this list has been exhausting

  11. Missed the Grammy line when editing. Thanks for the catch.

    Regarding the updates, this is a revision of the original list, not a new entity. But there is additional information regarding the artists active in the last ten years. The essential lists have been updated and expanded, the industry awards section has been reformatted, and new artwork has been included, as well as video playlists for each artist. There are also fifteen entirely new entries this time around. If it was as simple as copy and pasting, the new list would’ve been done months ago.

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