We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Sometimes you gotta wonder if Rosanne Cash secretly wishes her last name were Paycheck instead. On a CD bonus feature that accompanies her new album, Black Cadillac, she says she rebelled against her famous family into her 30s—not as flamboyantly as stepsister Carlene Carter, though the way Cash has long mixed pop with country (and has lately edged toward an NPR-friendly, alt-country sound) is still regarded as heresy in some circles.
But then again, so was Pop’s obsession with Bob Dylan, if his Oscar-winning biopic is to be believed. So when Cash sings that in a world where “the church leads you to hell…the only truth believed in/Is the one up on the screen,” she’s either carrying on the family business or coming to grips with the Man in Black’s lengthening shadow.
Which is probably why she’s decided to address that growing darkness head-on. Black Cadillac, recorded during and after a roughly two-year period that saw the death of her father, mother, and stepmother, is bookended with some from-the-grave snippets of Johnny that sound like they date from Rosanne’s toddlin’ days: “Rosanne, say c’mon,” he says at the top of Track 1. The second song, “Radio Operator,” was inspired by her dad’s stint as an Air Force—you guessed it—radio operator. And if you really wanna get your pop psychology on, you can wonder whether the horns on the title song are meant to recall “Ring of Fire” or whether the hammer sound on “Burn Down This Town” is meant to summon “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer.”
Black Cadillac is couched in some of Cash and crew’s tastiest arrangements—the title track’s fat bass line, courtesy of master sideman Dan Schwartz; hubby John Leventhal’s snaky, menacing guitar parts on “Burn Down This Town”; the descending piano and gentle guitar of “God Is in the Roses.” And the trombone/saxophone/clarinet charts of “World Without Sound” even nod toward old-timey jazz.
If the textures vary over the course of the album, Cash is a bit more consistent with what she’s singing about: loss. The title track offers obvious funereal images—a hearse carrying a loved one away, people talking without knowing what to say, and reflections such as “It’s a lonely world/I guess it always was/Minus you/Minus blood/My blood.” Memories real and imagined come and go elsewhere across the disc’s 12 songs. “Who do I believe/In this world without sound?/Who do I believe once they put you in the ground?” she sings on “World Without Sound.” “I Was Watching You” imagines Rosanne looking down on her father’s first marriage (of which she was a product): “A church wedding, they spent all they had/Now the deal is done to become Mom and Dad.” “House on the Lake” is, presumably, named for her father’s home in the Nashville suburb of Hendersonville: “But I hear his voice close in my ear/I see her smile and wave/I blink and while my eyes are closed/They both have gone away.”
Losing three parents in about two years would test anyone’s faith, and though Rosanne clearly misses her father, she doesn’t necessarily seem to miss his beliefs. It’s difficult to imagine this Cash singing a straight-ahead oldie like “The Old Account Was Settled Long Ago” or a straight-ahead original about Jesus making wine from water—both of which her father did for the inmates at San Quentin. Yep, if anything is fugitive in Rosanne’s world, it’s certainty. Though she’s open to the possibility of some kind of Big Daddy in the sky who holds the world together (“God is in the roses/The petals and the thorns/Storms out on the oceans/The souls who will be born,” she sings on “God Is in the Roses”), she wants little to do with his PR reps here on Earth. “I don’t want your tired religion/I’m not a soul you need to save,” she sings on “Like Fugitives.” The semiplayful “World Without Sound” takes a sideways, and longing, shot at the faithful—“I wish I was a Christian/And knew what to believe/I could learn a lot of rules/To put my mind at ease.” But on “Dreams Are Not My Home,” she’s longing for a different kind of simplicity—an undistilled, ground-level view of creation: “The spires of churches are the last place to enjoy the view.” Taken as a whole, it might seem a little muddled, but it also seems, with apologies to Mark Twain, that she’s not keen on letting religion interfere with her spiritual life.
She’s hardly the first person to genuinely grieve for her parents while questioning their values. But as the disc ends, she makes peace not merely with the generation that preceded her but also with a larger branch of the family tree. Named for the ship on which an ancestor sailed to America, “The Good Intent” finds her looking back, respectfully, at tradition. “I will marry, build a home/And see what that’s about,” she sings. You get the sense that one way or another, Rosanne’s headin’ home.
Nashville, with all its perceived blandness, has been a handy target for more than one generation of country musicians trying to present a less-packaged sound. In the ’70s, the members of the outlaw country movement tried to two-step around Music City’s gloss, affecting a rougher sound. Jessi Colter—nee Miriam Johnson, who took her stage name from an ancestor who was part of Jesse James’ band of troublemakers—was front and center in that movement, touring with the likes of Willie Nelson and her husband, the late, great Waylon Jennings. Recalling those hazy days, the liner notes of her 2003 best-of collection An Outlaw…A Lady portray concerts where “[t]he tokers and the guzzlers hooted” and “[s]tudents and working people hollered.”
Blame alt-country, the Dixie Chicks, or whatever, but today those hoary hits are far less maverick-sounding than they were at the time. They’re still enjoyable—it’s just that decades after Nelson, Jennings, and Colter buzzed Nashville’s roofs, their sound, once transgressive in its traditionalism, has become part of the fabric of pop country.
If Colter’s an outlaw these days, it’s in a far different sense—she’s been on the lam for a while. A pair of children’s albums in the last decade or so notwithstanding, Out of the Ashes is her first album of fresh solo material in more than 20 years. And having found her way back to the studio, Colter, abetted by producer Don Was, has opted to forgo her classic sound for something a little bit lusher (more orchestration, particularly on the ballads) and a little bit looser (less boxed in by bass and drums). Occasionally things get a little too loose: What sounds like someone’s digital-watch chime goes off about a minute into “So Many Things.”
Oddly, Out of the Ashes loses a bit of steam whenever Colter speeds things up. There’s not much lyrical spark to country rockers “Starman” and “Velvet and Steel,” no matter how well-played they are, and the only way to describe them is with an adjective that could make a good outlaw faint: conventional.
Still, a laid-back run-through of Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” works much better, and “You Can Pick ’Em,” a fuzzed-out 12-bar blues on which Colter, with co-writer Ray Herndon, takes a traditional topic—a rundown of the women her fella’s been messing around with—throwing in sex (“There was the one from Texas, Lord she made you squall/But the one from Arizona left you no soul at all”) and a serious taboo (“You can pick ’em baby/But you know it’s against the law”) and ending on a macabre note (“There’s a rope hangin’, baby/I’d like to slide you down/Let’s have a party baby/Oh, let’s see who comes around”). Outlaw, indeed.
Colter’s big crossover hit came with her 1975 ballad “I’m Not Lisa,” and on this outing, her slow numbers are still her most memorable. Though it’s hard to top the lyrical sadness of “Lisa”’s opening lines—“I’m not Lisa/My name is Julie/Lisa left you/Years ago”—Ashes’ “The Phoenix Rises” is a sturdy look at new beginnings, nature, and vulnerability that’s more likely to have folks hoisting Bics in arenas than Buds in honky-tonks. As a direct appeal for mercy and forgiveness, “Please Carry Me Home” (co-written and -sung by son Shooter Jennings and resurrected here from the Songs Inspired by The Passion of the Christ disc), can be forgiven for a lack of subtlety. It’s a straightforward sin-and-redemption number, and like Johnny (one might imagine him taking a sincere, acoustic stab at this during his American Recordings years) she musters enough empathy for sinners to make it believable.
Given the chasm in Colter’s solo-recording career, Out of the Ashes’ fifth track, “Out of the Rain,” may be the most inevitable—Colter is joined by her late husband himself, who lends the several shades of gray in his voice to (another) tale of the reforming power of love.
Surprisingly, that’s not the best cut on Out of the Ashes. That would be, appropriately enough, “You Took Me By Surprise,” a sweet, gently rolling piano-and-strings number about succumbing to a lover’s charms. It’s something of an homage to Patsy Cline, and between the combination of Colter’s soft voice and Was’ right-in-the-thick-of-it production—you can almost feel each piano string being struck—it goes to show that sometimes it pays not to rebel against your heritage. CP