The 80s wasn’t a great period for classic americana albums. The fashion at the time dictated that many albums were overproduced and featured lots of synthesisers and effects and these are not styles that suit roots-based music. Despite that, a number of americana artists did establish themselves during this period, and none more so than the Man in Black’s eldest daughter, Roseanne Cash.
In fact, Roseanne Cash’s early recordings are all from the 1980s. She did release an eponymously titled debut album in 1978, but it was a limited release that was never issued in the U.S. Made for the German Ariola label it was recorded in Munich with some additional work done in Nashville, and it’s a rarity that now commands high prices if you can find a copy. She kicked off the 80s with her first release for Columbia Records, “Right or Wrong”, produced by her husband at the time, Rodney Crowell, who she had married the year before. It’s a strong album, not least because she’s backed by musicians who were, predominantly, members of Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band (of which Crowell was a member at the time) but it failed to make more than moderate ripples, peaking at number 42 in the Billboard Country Chart, though it was very well received critically. Her next album, released the following year, changed all that. “Seven Year Ache”, and her own title song for the album, were significant hits, with both the album and the single making the top spot on the country charts and both crossing over onto the pop charts, where they reached 26 and 22 respectively.
Releasing an album every couple of years and steadily building her reputation with each one, it was with her sixth album (fifth American/Colombia release), “King’s Record Shop”, that she started to make real waves outside of the U.S. Until this point, while she was established as her own artist in the U.S, outside of her home country she was better known as Johnny Cash’s daughter. “King’s Record Shop” is, I would say, the record that really changed that. Released in 1987, it was her most critically acclaimed album to date and I remember being blown away when first hearing it. My first copy of this classic Americana album was on cassette, a real sign of the times, but I’ve since gone on to buy it on both CD and vinyl and it has remained a regular pleasure to listen to. The last of her albums to be solely produced by Rodney Crowell (the couple would split just three years later), and he did a particularly fine job, it’s an album full of terrific songs, including one of her own best compositions, ‘The Real Me’, and covers of songs by John Hiatt, Eliza Gilkyson, John Stewart, Rodney Crowell, Benmont Tench and one from her father, Johnny Cash. There are two of her own solo compositions on the album, along with a co-write with Hank DeVito, it’s simply an outstanding collection of songs and she puts her own, individual stamp on every one of them. Her cover of Hiatt’s ‘The Way We Make a Broken Heart’ is sublime and it could’ve been written for her, sounding so perfect with her rich, slightly husky voice and a delivery that hints at regret and a sense of inevitability. On Gilkyson’s punchy ‘Rosie Strike Back’ it takes no leap of imagination to picture Cash delivering exactly this sort of advice to a troubled friend and, while Crowell’s ‘I Don’t Have to Crawl’ has seen many versions, including his own and a superb version by Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash still manages to make the song sound like she owns it. One of my favourite stories around this album concerns her cover of Johnny Cash’s ‘Tennessee Flat Top Box’. She knew it because it was a regular song in her father’s set and she’d grown to love it because of hearing it so often – but she didn’t know he’d written it until she decided to cover the song and had to clear the publishing!
The performances throughout the album are excellent and you can really hear what a top-notch set of musicians assembled to play these songs. Larry Crane, ex of John Mellencamp’s band was the main guitar player with contributions from Billy Joe Walker, Randy Scruggs and Cash herself. Keyboard duties are handled by Benmont Tench and Barry Beckett, with Michael Rhodes on bass and Vince Santoro on drums. Mark O’Connor shows up on Madolin/Mandola and the cornucopia of backing singers includes Vince Gill, Steve Winwood, Bobby King, Patty Smyth and, of course, Rodney Crowell.
This album gave Roseanne Cash no less than four Number 1 country hits – ‘Tennessee Flat Top Box’, ‘The Way We Make a Broken Heart’, John Stewart’s ‘Runaway Train’ and ‘If You Change Your Mind’, Cash’s co-write with Hank DeVito. The album earned her a gold record and she was named Billboard’s Top Singles Artist of the Year. I’d say that all adds up to a fairly convincing Classic Americana Album.
One final story about the album. King’s Record Shop is a store in Louisville, Kentucky and the photo on the front of the album was taken by pedal steel player, Hank DeVito – but Roseanne Cash wasn’t there at the time, though he did also take the picture of her, and then photo-shopped the two together. The photo may lie but the music certainly doesn’t – top-drawer Americana all the way.