Fellow Traveler 

Rosanne Cash may have left Music Row long behind, but as her fine new album proves, country music is at the core of her identity

Rosanne Cash may have left Music Row long behind, but as her fine new album proves, country music is at the core of her identity

Rosanne Cash

Rules of Travel (Capitol)

On Jan. 27, Rosanne Cash returned to the Grand Ole Opry for the first time in years. Dressed in a black, bell-bottom pantsuit with her short brown hair grazing a white collar, she was there to sing two songs for the PBS-TV special, Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Farther Along, hosted by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The first was a minimalist string-band arrangement of The Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower”; the second was a duet with John Hiatt on his “One Step Over the Line,” a reprise of their version on the NGDB’s 1989 album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume Two.

It was a reminder that even though Cash fell off country playlists in 1990 and moved from Nashville to New York in 1991, she remains inextricably linked to country music. After all, her father is Johnny Cash; her step-grandmother was Maybelle Carter, and it was her step-aunt Helen Carter who personally taught Rosanne the chords and lyrics to “Wildwood Flower.” She and Hiatt had been part of a close-knit Nashville community (with Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Patty Loveless, Guy Clark, Steve Earle and Cash’s then-husband Rodney Crowell) that revolutionized country music in the 1980s.

And for all its Beatle-esque flourishes (provided by her producer and current husband John Leventhal), Cash’s new release, Rules of Travel, is a country album at heart. Part of it is her voice, whose slight nasal twang and storytelling dignity betray her genetic and cultural background. Part of it is her subject matter, for most of the songs concern marriage, one of country music’s greatest topics. Part of it is her sensibility, for hers is not a rock ’n’ roll attitude of all or nothing; it’s a country attitude that something is better than nothing.

Rules of Travel is unlikely to get much airplay on country stations. It doesn’t reflect what country music is; it merely suggests what country music could be. The album implies that country music doesn’t have to be teenage pop dressed up in cowboy hats and prom-queen hairdos—that it could once again be a music for adults, reflecting their struggles to keep their marriages together and their bills paid, as it was in the days of Hank Williams and Merle Haggard. And as Cash and her peers proved in the ’80s, country music can reflect the reality of modern marriages, where the women work and expect to be equal partners. No wonder she got such a warm welcome when she returned to the Opry.

“I was delighted to be back working at the Opry,” she says. “I hung out with Randy Scruggs and Vince Gill, who were both very close friends in the past. But what moved me the most was when the members of the crew at the TV studios there came up to me during rehearsal to shake my hand and say, 'It’s nice to have you back.’ I was nearly in tears. I felt very welcome. It reminded me how important it is to have one foot solidly in the past as you venture into the future.”

The most obvious example of the past on her new album is the duet with her father on “September When It Comes.” Over simple acoustic guitar picking, Rosanne describes a young child in bed, waiting for a father who was too often away from home; she then admits that “the baby became me.” As a melancholy keyboard figure comes in under the guitar, she confesses that she locked those feelings away for years, and only now, in the autumn of her parents’ lives, can she unlock them again.

Then Johnny’s voice comes in, resembling his daughter’s not so much in timbre as in its deliberate, dignified phrasing. Sounding craggier than ever, he acknowledges his own aging: “I cannot move the mountain now / I can no longer run / I cannot be who I was then / In a way, I never was.” Leventhal adds a deep-throated horn to the mix, and the elegiac mood is complete.

What’s remarkable about the track, besides the brilliantly understated vocals and arrangement, is the lyrics’ refusal to pretend that all the two-way grudges and resentments between parents and children can be magically resolved, as if life were a TV movie. Having had your say, at a certain point you have to accept the past for what it is and respect the bonds that tie families together.

“That song arose from that first glimpse of mortality,” she reveals. “My dad got ill, and I realized, 'Oh, my parents aren’t going to live forever.’ When he first got really sick about six years ago and was in the hospital for two weeks, it really affected me like it would any child. I was in my 40s, and I realized you can’t get everything from your past resolved. There’s a Rilke quote about learning to love the questions and not having to have an answer every time. As you get older, you realize it’s a waste of energy trying to fix everything from the past. That’s over with; let it go.”

A spirit of compromise and acceptance can be found throughout Rules of Travel. The title track, for example, is about the negotiations that are part of every egalitarian marriage. This is the subject of Cash’s greatest songs—”Seven Year Ache,” “Looking for a Corner,” “Blue Moon With Heartache,” “On the Inside,” “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me” and “What We Really Want.” On the new song—set to Leventhal’s beguiling, George Harrison-like melody—she acknowledges that mistakes are an inevitable part of marriage. Every new situation presents an opportunity for a new mistake; the trick is to learn the “rules of travel” as you journey through the relationship. There’s “no map to hold,” so you have to learn as you go.

“Ah, negotiation,” she agrees, “it never goes away, does it? It’s a constant in my life and in most people’s lives. I recently sent all my daughters an e-mail saying that now that you’re old enough to understand, you should realize that 90 percent of what you know about love and romance has been formed by movies and TV and music, and it’s all a myth. You’re not going to find a man who’s going to be perfect in every way, who’s always going to know what to say, who’s always going to do the right thing. You’re going to find an imperfect man and a love that’s a mess, and you’ll make the best of it by constantly revising it.”

You can hear that dialogue of negotiation and revision on “I’ll Change for You.” In a soothing, nurturing voice, Cash promises to change for her husband, and in alternating lines, Steve Earle makes a similar pledge in a gruff baritone. You can hear it on “Last Stop Before Home,” when Cash generously offers her lover “everything I am” but defiantly refuses to give him anything else; he may be her “last stop before home,” but her core identity is her home, and “I always go home.” You can hear it on “Closer Than I Appear,” a song that admits it’s possible to feel anger and affection for the same person at the same time. That sort of mixed message is difficult to convey in a pop song, but Cash has been capturing that ambivalence since “Seven Year Ache.”

“In the beginning, I was writing songs like anyone else,” she admits. “I was trying to reflect my hope for the perfect love or my disappointment that it didn’t exist. In the process of exploring the territory, however, I’ve come to accept the love that actually exists, the imperfect love that evolves and revises itself over time. It’s difficult to describe that in a song, but you have to find a subtle thought and hold it in your head, resisting the urge to drift to a grander, simpler idea. You have to ruminate on that subtle thought, describing the details, describing the furniture.”

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