Over a music career lasting more than forty years, Rosanne Cash has enjoyed both critical and commercial success, winning Grammy Awards and delivering a string of hits in the U.S. Country Charts. Stylistically, Cash has drawn upon various genres but running through all her songs is her distinctive, powerfully ranging, melodic vocal, full of experience and life. Cash is an expert in giving of herself and writing personal material in such a way that everyone is included and hears themselves in her songs. The complexities of relationships and the resignation and tragedy of life is intimately portrayed but universal. In Cash’s songs, we can also find hope, rebirth and renewal. All that it means to be human can be found here: themes of love and joy, compromise and disappointment, loss and weary heartache. Always, her messages are delivered with the sort of literate, poetic lyricism that gives her songs weight and depth, revealing more with each listen. That she continues to produce such absorbing and consistently high-quality new work is remarkable and all her 21st century output demonstrates that she remains an artist capable of generating powerful emotional responses.
It’s no easy task to compile a list of songs to illustrate a great artist. To further complicate the task, this is a list with a twist, the twist being that each song is taken from a different album in chronological order. Hopefully, this gives new listeners the opportunity to explore the full range of Cash’s work; for existing fans, it is another chance to journey through her outstanding career once again.
Number 10: ‘Seven Year Ache’ title track from ‘Seven Year Ache’
Written at a time of personal change following the birth of her first child, Rosanne Cash’s second album for Columbia channelled the uncertainty and doubt into a remarkable album focused on the conflicting emotion when relationships unravel: the desire to hold onto love while needing to let go. There are compositions by Merle Haggard, Steve Forbert, Rodney Crowell and Tom Petty but, against such esteemed competition, Cash’s own songs are the best on the album, particularly the title track. I have previously described the song ‘Seven Year Ache’ as, “…the most hummable tune in country music.” Cash’s weary, resigned vocal is indeed incredibly melodious, giving voice to smart, relatable lyrics of aching hearts. Not only did ‘Seven Year Ache’ top the country charts, it reached 22 on the pop charts, announcing her as a commercial and critical power in country music.
Number 9: ‘Tennessee Flat Top Box’ from ‘King’s Record Shop’
Rosanne Cash’s version of her father’s 1961 hit ‘Tennessee Flat Top Box’ is one of the highlights from ‘King’s Record Shop’. Cash has confessed that, when she recorded the song, she hadn’t realised it was one of her father’s own compositions, though she had been familiar with his version all her life. Rather, she just assumed that the timeless classic had been around forever. The story of the boy who dreams of becoming a country music star was given new life in Rosanne’s 1987, Rodney Crowell-produced take on the song and remains a foot-tapping fan-favourite.
Number 8: ‘On the Surface’ from ‘Interiors’
It’s easy to relate to the narrative in ‘On the surface’ as the image of ourselves we project to the world frequently differs from the turmoil and personal upheaval we manage on a daily basis. That truth is only found on the interior. The message is simple: “On the surface everything seems right // No one notices the dimness of the light.” Themes of disappointment and fading relationships permeate all the songs on ‘Interiors’, which, as the title suggests, is a deeply reflective, intimate record of personal introspection and revelation. The songs, largely acoustic and stripped back when compared to previous material, were written as Cash’s marriage to Rodney Crowell was beginning to crumble, though she did not quite know it yet. Self-produced, the sound and recording process marked a significant change in direction and the resulting album has withstood the test of time. Though it wasn’t a commercial success on its release in 1990 and it marked the end of Cash’s relationship with the Nashville division of Columbia, this musical departure was a real turning point in her career, making it one of Rosanne Cash’s most important records.
Number 7: ‘The Wheel’ title track from ‘The Wheel’
‘The Wheel’ is one of Rosanne Cash’s most familiar songs. A strong rhythm and driving finger-picking, full of momentum, mirror the themes of constant change as Cash asks questions like, “How long was I asleep?” and, “When did the sky turn black?” It reflects a turbulent period of her life: divorcing Rodney Crowell and leaving Nashville. Above all, though, there is a sense of moving towards something new rather than away from the past, a sense of renewal. This is the sound of someone waking up. Like the title track, the album is hopeful and energised by the new love Cash found with co-producer John Levanthal. This was when Rosanne Cash first entered my consciousness and was an enthralling place to start exploring.
Number 6: ‘Western Wall’ from ’10 Song Demo’
In 1996, Rosanne Cash released ’10 Song Demo’, an album she worked on with John Levanthal in the grief-stricken months following a personal loss. The highpoint is the beautifully melodic ‘Western Wall’. Cash sings of her, “…heart full of fear // And I offer it up // on this alter of tears.” It’s raw, weary and moving, her pain channelled into an absorbing record.
Number 5: ‘September When it Comes’ (feat. Johnny Cash) from ‘Rules of Travel’
The Lyrics for ‘September When it Comes’ came to Rosanne Cash years before the music was added with the help of John Levanthal. The sound is full of sorrow, aching with loss and regret. The words read like poetry as Cash tackles the most challenging of themes: a child’s relationship with a parent, the acceptance of mortality and the things we cannot change. It is at once deeply personal and entirely universal and is one of her most emotionally affecting songs. Of course, it is made compete by the addition of Johnny Cash’s vocal: “I plan to crawl outside these walls // Close my eyes and see // And fall into the heart and arms // Of those who wait for me.” Such feeling and emotional gravity is what music is made for.
Number 4: ‘God is in the Roses’ from ‘Black Cadillac’
‘God is in the Roses’ is another emotionally resonant song. The lyrics are breath-taking as Cash sees the divine in, “…the petals and the thorns,” simply illustrating a universal truth that a life lived completely and honestly involves it all: birth and mourning, joy and sorrow. ‘Black Cadillac’ was like a concept album for death, written in a year that saw too many tragic losses in the Cash family, including her father. ‘God is in the Roses’ was the first song she wrote after Johnny Cash died. This song, indeed the whole album, is an accomplishment in confronting mortality. It is a privilege to listen to Cash using her considerable gifts to help make sense of her grief and, through this, we can start to make sense of our own.
Number 3: ‘Sea of Heartbreak’ (feat. Bruce Springsteen) from ‘The List’
Rosanne Cash is a songwriter. Yet, one of her most wonderful albums is ‘The List’, an album of covers based on a list of songs Johnny Cash had given her in 1973. His list was an attempt to educate his daughter in musical heritage. It’s about legacy, both musical and personal. Curating these songs and adding her own voice to those that came before helped Cash to find her own place in the history of roots music and to resolve many of the themes she had tackled previously in her own work. ‘Sea of Heartbreak’ is a rhythmic duet with Bruce Springsteen. Their outstanding voices come together and elevate one another in a warm embrace.
Number 2: ‘A Feather’s Not a Bird’ from ‘The River & the Thread’
It is a sure sign of greatness when an artist can continue to produce albums like ‘The River & The Thread’ deep into a successful musical career. The album won critical approval and three Grammy Awards, including two for the song ‘A Feather’s Not a Bird’. This rootsy single represents the whole album, which is a reflection on the social history, culture, myth and musical heritage of America’s Deep South. Cash travelled through the region, down Highway 61 and the Mississippi, exploring the people and places and her family’s past. And we delight in travelling with her. This is a truly timeless song from an album that stands as perhaps her greatest achievement.
Number 1: ‘Everyone but Me’ from ‘She Remembers Everything’
How to follow up the broad, sweeping majesty of ‘The River & The Thread’? With ‘She Remembers Everything’, some of Cash’s most personal material in years, steeped in love, loss, compromise and all aspects of life. On its release in 2018, the album felt absolutely current in its themes and scope without being overtly political or topical. The songs are gently atmospheric and full of humanity. It’s mature and lyrical, intimate yet for everyone. These are songs to spend time getting to know. Through them, we get to know Rosanne Cash and a little about life: “We run a similar course // On a track laid with broken glass // So tie your shoes real tight // It goes by real fast.” Oh my, it goes fast.