Rosanne Cash’s ‘The Wheel’ Comes Full Circle

0

“Screw ’em. Move to New York.” With these words to his daughter, country-music legend Johnny Cash changed the direction of Rosanne Cash’s life — as she recounts in a trailer for the re-release of her 1993 album, The Wheel. Rosanne had turned to her dad after her record label, Columbia, smelling no hits, abandoned her previous album, Interiors (true to its name, an introspective work), a career blow right on the heels of a personal one, the deterioration of her marriage to fellow singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell.

I remember seeing a newspaper photo, probably not far into the ’80s, of Rodney and Rosanne — even their names seemed made for each other — out on the town, their radiance fairly emanating from the page; the caption called them “the king and queen of Nashville.” (Cash’s 1981 album, Seven Year Ache, had topped the charts; the year before, Crowell, a sought-after songwriter, reached the Top 40 with his single “Ashes by Now.”) But in 1991, no longer enthroned or happily married, Cash took her famous father’s advice and left Nashville for New York City, where, like so many, she paradoxically both found and reinvented herself.

The Wheel — a self-exploration that took off where Interiors had left off, but flying higher — was the catalyst. While navigating New York, alone except for her toddler (one of four daughters with Crowell, including a stepdaughter), Cash continued to spin words and melodies out of her own heartbreak and confusion, as well as from her attraction to guitarist-songwriter-producer John Leventhal, whom she’d asked to work with her on the new record. She felt an intense connection with him right away, but Leventhal, she told me, “wasn’t really catching on. I had to lead him a bit.” He wrote the music to Cash’s lyrics for several of the songs, some about Crowell and others about himself, with “Change Partners” the most telling among them. At his suggestion, they also produced the album together, and by the end of the project, they were a couple.

Married in 1995, the two recently started their own label, RumbleStrip. Its first offering is that re-release of The Wheel, to commemorate its 30th anniversary. For the first time, the album’s also available on vinyl. Already meticulously produced, with gorgeous arrangements (most by Leventhal), it’s been crisply remastered, and the deluxe edition includes a second LP (or CD) of live recordings from Cash’s 1993 performances on Austin City Limits and The Columbia Records Radio Hour. With the live edition, she goes off-Wheel a few times, singing her friend Lucinda Williams’s “Crescent City” and Lerner and Loewe’s “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” from My Fair Lady, as well as her own “I’ll Change for You,” from Rules of Travel (2003). One of the perks of live recordings is the between-song patter. I’ve always considered Cash’s sexy duet with Steve Earle on “I’ll Change for You” a guilty pleasure because of the non-feminist lyrics. Here she offers an apologia about what her friends were calling an “emotionally retro” song: “Obsession can be a prelude to real love [or] some kind of implosion … but sometimes you feel like this.”

 

“It’s a powerful thing, that kind of reckoning with loss and enormous change in your life and all the feelings, the rage and the compassion.”

 

Although she is ensconced in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and has won several country — as well as, more recently, Americana and American roots — Grammys, I never thought of Cash as a country singer, maybe because of the songs I was drawn to (though I love hearing her strong voice suddenly flip up to an airy high note in that country way). With her poetic lyrics and barely contained yearning, to me she feels more in the realm of ’70s confessional singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Carole King — the Laurel Canyon sound. And she did grow up mostly in Southern California, spending only her early years in Tennessee. In her memoir, Composed, she writes, “I was a California girl, in aesthetic and attitude.”

These days, after more than 30 years in NYC, Cash is clearly a New Yorker in aesthetic (often dresses in black) and attitude (which you know if you’ve followed her on Twitter/X) — and, at 68, a kind of elder stateswoman of music, gathering such laurels as the SAG/AFTRA Lifetime Achievement Award for Sound Recordings, the Smithsonian Ingenuity Award in the Performing Arts, and the Edward MacDowell Medal. 

Recently, I spoke to Cash by phone, untangling the Rodney/John songs, revisiting her book of short stories, and delving into the deliciousness of angry songwriting. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

• · • · •

 

Mary Lyn Maiscott: I saw on Instagram that you had knee replacement surgery. I just wondered how you’re doing.

Rosanne Cash: Oh my God. It’s a slow recovery process. I think I overestimated my resilience. So I’m regrouping. 

Let me start with the new label you started with John Leventhal — quite an endeavor, I would think.

Yeah, we reverse-engineered it. I didn’t think of having a label until I got my master for The Wheel back from Sony. I had a clause in my contract that I would own my master after 30 years. And when I got it, we were talking: It was never released on vinyl. I can release it on vinyl — remaster it, write some new liner notes, add some really fun bells and whistles. And John had recorded his first solo record during the pandemic. His album was going to be called Rumble Strip. I said, Man, that’s a great name for a label too. So we created RumbleStrip records. These are our first two releases. 

Where does that name come from?

That’s from the mind of John Leventhal. I didn’t know what it was either, but he did. It’s the edge on a highway that’s bumpy that lets you know you’re getting out of your lane.

Did you choose The Wheel as your first release just because you got the master back or were there other reasons? 

It just all fell into place. I thought, This is a 30-year anniversary. I usually don’t like looking back at my past work. I can be overly critical in listening to it — I wish I had sung it differently, I wish we had arranged it differently, that song is a little too navel-gazing, whatever. But it’s an accurate reflection of that time in our lives. And it’s the first record John and I made together, that has the first songs we ever wrote together. And here we are 30 years later, still doing what I think is good work together. It was a watershed moment in our lives. I didn’t expect how profound it would feel to own the master. It’s had a kind of spiritual resonance to me.

Speaking of that, I was struck by one of the lyrics. It’s from the song “From the Ashes”: “My heart is my compass. My soul is my guide.” Did you feel that way in the making of the album?

I did. I was getting a divorce, falling in love with John; my whole life was turned inside out, everything was upended, I was just free-falling. And yet, I had this kind of inner compass in me that was moving toward the future that actually fit my life.

Village Voice interview with Rosanne Cash - cover of 30th Anniversary release of The Wheel
RumbleStrip Records

I can’t imagine all the feelings that would be running through you while you were singing those songs during the recording sessions.

I had a little bit of feeling both power and awkwardness, because it was the first time John and I had worked together and I wanted him to like me [laughs], I wanted to impress him. I wanted to sing well. And I was a little shy around him still, I can hear that in some of my vocals. But I also hear so much longing and fresh hope. It’s in the song “Fire of the Newly Alive.” It felt … newly alive.

It’s such a pristine album, the production is just so clear. At the same time, there’s all this kind of roiling — things going on internally with you. It’s a very potent combination. You had moved to New York from Nashville, so this album was born, so to speak, in New York City. 

Oh yeah. Well, there are two songs I wrote at the very end of living in Nashville, “Sleeping in Paris” and “The Wheel.” 

I wondered if “The Wheel” was about John, but you had already written it.

It is. 

It is about John. You had met him earlier? 

I met him the year before. And I was — I knew my life was gonna get complicated [laughs]. 

Where did you live in New York? You have that song “Seventh Avenue.” 

I lived at the corner of Morton and Seventh Avenue. And then I moved to Soho, to Mercer Street. And then I moved to West 11th Street — that’s when John and I started living together and got married. 

I picture you somehow by yourself when I think of you moving into an apartment in New York, but you had children. 

That first year, I only had the baby with me, my three-year-old. And then going back and forth to the other girls in Nashville, and then they gradually came up one by one. So Carrie, my little one, I enrolled her in Barrow Street Nursery School, which was just around the corner from where we lived. And she was an anxious little thing. I had to sit with her in nursery school every day. 

So life did get complicated. 

Yeah.

“Seventh Avenue” is very haunting.

I had gone to see Leo Kottke at the Bottom Line. And I was just despondent. Before the show, I wrote those lyrics on a napkin. I know that sounds like a trope, but I actually did. And then I thought, Well, this could be a way to connect with John, and I gave him the lyrics. I said, Would you want to write music to this? And he did. That was the first song we wrote together. 

Was that the beginning of your doing the album together?     

No, at some point after that, I asked him if he would like to produce an album. I said, “I have all these other songs. They’re very elemental.” And he said, “Are they good songs?”

I was saying they’re elemental because they were full of all kinds of powerful, violent nature metaphors. And he said, I’ll co-produce the album with you. So that’s what we did. 

Your marriage to Rodney Crowell had ended. I heard a show that Vin Scelsa did — you remember Idiot’s Delight?

Oh yeah.

 

“I don’t have any illusions that there’s glamour in touring. But at the same time there’s a connection with an audience. It’s like nothing else.”

 

I think it was on WNEW at the time. He had you on, and it must have been at some point after the album came out because I remember him playing “Seventh Avenue” to close the show. He said something about how you had loved Rodney Crowell. He put it in the past tense. And you said, “I still love Rodney.” I think it was a rare time when Vin was speechless. But I assumed you were talking about a big sort of love, a love that doesn’t die.

Oh I was. I totally was, and, you know, I still do. It was really rocky in the beginning, but I think we, because of the kids, worked hard to have a real relationship and a friendship, and to John’s and Rodney’s great credit they are friends as well. 

Do you still work with Rodney musically?

I have over the decades. I did this record called “It Ain’t Over Yet” [2017] with Rodney and John Paul White. There have been scattered things over the years. 

John Leventhal is in the current video you have out for “The Truth About You.” And I noticed that not only did he cowrite that song with you, but only you and he are on the track. So is that one about John?

Oh my God, yes. I wrote those lyrics about him and asked him to write the music. And, I mean, the fact that it is only the two of us on that track, it’s very intimate. Really intimate. 

I think that the power of your songs comes from — I’ll just call it nuances of emotion and understanding, like, for example, in “Roses in the Fire.” That image is striking — I always picture you throwing roses you’ve been given in the fire. 

Which I did. 

We would assume from that that you’re angry, but there’s also empathy there for the man involved and even for another woman in his life. I don’t think you hear that so much in songs.

It’s a powerful thing, that kind of reckoning with loss and enormous change in your life and all the feelings, the rage and the compassion.

It’s not like you lose aspects of love that you have for someone. 

Right, right. 

I find that can be really powerful with writing songs, because it’s surprising how those visceral feelings will emerge after even decades. And to sing them is really — it almost feels a little delicious sometimes. 

Yeah, it does. [“Roses in the Fire”] is definitely the angriest song I ever wrote, and then that kind of Roy Orbison chord progression at the bridge. John goes, “This so doesn’t sound like you.” 

Did your dad comment on your songs at all? 

“If There’s a God on My Side” he particularly homed in on. He called me up after he heard the album and he said, “I just realized why God is a woman to you — because you have daughters.” It was so beautiful. 

Your book of short stories, Bodies of Water, came out a few years after The Wheel. Were you writing any of the songs and stories at the same time?

I’m sure I was because I was working on the stories for a long time. 

There’s a story, “Part Girl,” that has Paris as a setting. 

Oh true. I’m a bit of a Francophile, so Paris has shown up in a few things, “Part Girl” and then, on [the album] 10 Song Demo, “The Summer I Read Collette.” And “Sleeping in Paris” [from The Wheel]. Paris is very dear to me. 

The title story is about a singer. She’s touring, and at one point she asks herself why she does it. That made me wonder how you feel about being onstage and touring.

I had a conflicted relationship with the whole idea of it for decades. And I still have a lot of conflict about touring. During the pandemic, I wrote a piece for The Atlantic called, “I Will Miss What I Wanted to Lose.” Because I was getting really burnt out about it, and I don’t have any illusions that there’s glamour in touring. But at the same time there’s a connection with an audience. It’s like nothing else. The songs come alive in a space and it only lasts for two hours; at the end of the night, it’s washed away. And the energy exchange with the people who came to hear those songs is really an honor. Back then, when I wrote that, I felt that it was trial by jury, that it was just to be judged. I had a mistaken idea of what performance was really about.

Do you now feel it’s about that sense of community that you were just talking about?

Oh sure. I mention that word every night: We create a community. 

You did also say in that story, “I take my questions to the stage. It is surely just what I need: a balm to soothe these inner cracks.”

That I learned from my dad; he did that. He took his problems and his wounds and his questions to the stage. And you know, you could see it in him. To get bathed in light and the energy of the audience, it was incredibly healing to him.

Your voice is so rich, and it seems very reliable. That’s how I hear it. I don’t know if you always feel that way.

It’s pretty reliable. I have strong cords. 

You did have to stop singing at one point because of vocal-cord —

Polyps, uh-huh.

Wasn’t that for a long time? 

It was a couple of years. I didn’t realize how much my self-image was tied to my voice. And when I couldn’t sing, I got depressed. It was troubling. I had to rebuild my voice. It was destroyed. 

Did you start studying after that, doing vocal exercises, or had you been doing that? 

I went to two different vocal therapists. And they helped me rebuild it, like from scratch, from the ground up, just like a house. Then I had to strengthen it. 

Were you able to speak normally?

No, I wasn’t. I sounded like Tom Waits with a bad cold. 

I read that you and John are writing a Broadway musical, Norma Rae

We’ve been working on that for about six years, had a couple of workshops and a lot of rewrites and we have a theater interested in it, so I’m hoping that we can get it staged next year.

I was surprised when I read that on average it takes 10 years for a musical to be developed.

Yeah, it’s ridiculous. It’s insane. It’s more complicated than the music business, which is saying a lot.

There’s something else I feel that’s important to talk about — your work in regard to gun control.

I spoke at the Million Mom March in 2000 and wrote a piece for Rolling Stone about it. And since then I’ve done dozens of house concerts, marches, lie-ins, galas, fundraisers, and it’s just unbelievably frustrating that it’s not changed. To me it’s just a really commonsense extension of parenting. We lock aspirin bottles. There are like a dozen laws to protect children from the cords from venetian blinds. And car seats. And yet, Oh we can’t do anything about people buying AK-47s. It’s the most cynical thing in the world and just infuriates me and I’ll never shut up about it.  ❖

Rosanne Cash will perform at City Winery in New York City on January 15, January 16, and February 27.

Mary Lyn Maiscott, an NYC-based singer-songwriter, has played such clubs as Folk City, Pianos, and Bowery Electric; her latest recordings are “Alithia’s Flowers (Children of Uvalde)” and “My Cousin Sings Harmony.” She’s written about music for Vanity Fair and other publications. 

 

link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *