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She’s Johnny’s daughter. Let’s get that out of the way now. Rosanne Cash toured with the Man in Black after high schooleven doing his band’s laundry, which must have required careful sorting to avoid gray undies for everyoneand she’s still close to him today. Yet his impact on her artistry has been subtle: It’s evident mostly as an air of personal and musical iconoclasm.
Cash hasn’t had the traditional career arc of, say, a Mary Chapin Carpenter. After her marriage to fellow new-country upstart Rodney Crowell and the critical and commercial success of her Crowell-produced third album, 1981’s Seven Year Ache, she dropped out of sight for years at a time, resurfacing occasionally to release an acclaimed album, each different from the previous pearl. There were the country-pop Rhythm and Romance (1985), the loftier yet rootsier King’s Record Shop (1987), the gloomy prelude to divorce Interiors (1990), and the eclectic post-breakup chronicle The Wheel (1993).
After The Wheel, Cash took the entertainment-biz version of the mommy track: she made babies, wrote a children’s book, and developed a respectable reputation as an essayist and fiction writer. 10 Song Demo, an 11-song home recording released in 1996, revealed that her rich voice and thoughtful lyricism were still intact, but she’s only just made another full-fledged studio album, Rules of Travel. And it’s not an insult to country’s most powerful exemplar of sexy-soulful-smart womanhood to say that she achieved some of Travel’s most notable moments with men by her side.
Take “I’ll Change for You,” the album’s Cash-penned third track. Cash croons the title phrase in her breathy alto, and as she repeats it, the American sisterhood wrinkles its brow: Shouldn’t a woman in her 40s know better? But as the singer promises, “I’ll turn night into day,” we realize that we’re not hearing a bad boy’s victim but, rather, a supernatural lover. And it works, too: Soon the psychic-roadkill voice of Steve Earle joins her, vowing, “I don’t care what people say” and “All the rules that we’ve learned…we’ll sit and watch while they burn.” He sounds as captivated by the tender trap of love as she does. (It’s about time Earle burns a disc of Barry White covers, don’t you think?)
Cash hooks up with another guy for “Three Steps Down,” visiting an underground haunt in the company of Teddy Thompson. “[C]andles burn and shadows loom” as Cash and Thompson’s voices entwine in the fox-trot beat sketched by Matt Keeler’s brushes on the drums, and then things get more metaphysical than physical: “The clouds are falling at our feet.” The dreamlike setting, with an organ wailing through the rhythms like a cold wind, complements Thompson’s seraphic, somewhat deadpan voiceand, perhaps not incidentally, evokes Teddy’s parents, Richard and Linda Thompson, “dancing till [their] feet don’t touch the ground” on 1975’s Pour Down Like Silver. After these lovely fallen angels have finished their dance, a psychedelic guitar coda briefly reinforces the otherworldly vibejust enough of a fillip to remind us that if Cash has a wild heart, she’s also unfailingly tasteful.
Well, almost unfailingly. And it’s a sad thing, because producer (and Cash’s husband) John Leventhal undoubtedly had the best of intentions when he persuaded his wife to bring Dad in for “September When It Comes.” The Cash-Leventhal weeper starts promisingly, as over a folky acoustic guitar Cash recounts, “There’s a cross above the baby’s bed/a savior in her dreams/but she was not delivered then/and the baby became me.” By the chorus, the song resolves itself into a wish for reconciliation: “I’ll let you in/September when it comes.” It’s all oh so pretty, and oh so achinguntil Johnny comes in to tell his side. Sure, it hurts when his aged voice laments, “I cannot move a mountain now/I can no longer run.” But it hurts even more that he seems to be singing from some faraway realm, as if Nat King Cole just re-entered the green room and it’s now Johnny’s turn to go out and occupy the spectral bubble over his own little girl’s head. With a bit more craftsmanship, it might have been a stunning family reunion; instead, it’s uncomfortably kitschy.
Rules of Travel is like that: a solid comeback marred by a few missteps. “Will You Remember Me” showcases those lovely downward swoops to the low end of Cash’s altobut it also features some cheesy boardwalk-concession keybs. And the smart, countrified “Closer Than I Appear” asks a musical question better left unuttered: Does anyone miss the wah-wah pedal?
But not all of Cash and Leventhal’s adventurous choices are bad ones. Also in “Closer” is an extraordinary passage in which everything goes dark and medieval, with a brooding chorus and a single bass note, and then, a few seconds later, glitters with a hint of Byrdsian guitars. “I’ll Change for You,” “Three Steps Down,” and “September” all feature Tony Kadlek’s sophisticated playing on that most uncountry of instruments, the fluegelhorn. And “Beautiful Pain,” on which Sheryl Crow sings with Cash, reminds you that, before she was an overhyped pop star, Crow was one hell of a backup singer.
Rules of Travel demonstrates that Cash’s genius lies partly in choosing her musical friends wisely. More important, it reveals that she’s remained faithful to her own eccentric muse, even long past her peak market days. There could be no better case in point than the stunning, stark “Western Wall,” in which Cash eschews polemics and history to express personal humility and pain: “I shove my prayers in the cracks/I got nothing to lose, no one to answer back…/I’ve got a heart full of fear/And I offer it up on this altar of tears.” The lines are delivered in an old-pro deadpan, a straightforward approach that allows Cash to tackle a lyric few singers could pull off without eliciting derision: “I don’t know if God was ever a man,” she concludes as her and Leventhal’s guitars whisper their own novenas. “But if she was, I think I understand/Why he found a place to break his fall/Near the Western Wall.” The result is a song as sincere and moving, in its own quiet way, as anything that ever came out of Folsom Prison. CP
Cash performs at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 15, at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. For more information, call (703) 549-7500.