As metaphors go, it was a bit too melodramatic for the songwriting tastes of Rosanne Cash: A pregnant singer who repeatedly puts her career on hold for family abruptly loses her voice, perhaps forever. Her baby arrives healthy but, for the singer, there is a dark realization that she has long undervalued the role of song in her life.
It’s not all some tale told in sheet music, it was Cash’s life after her voice faded to a rasp in the summer of 1998. “When my baby was born, I couldn’t even sing lullabies,” she said. “Before I lost my voice, I did not realize how central singing had grown to my idea of who I am. Then it became metaphorical for everything. I lost my ability to say who I am. I lost the ability to have an opinion.”
Medical cameras now show the polyps that threatened the vocal cords of the 46-year-old singer-songwriter are gone (“We put those pictures in the family photo album,” she jokes) and, after intense vocal training, Cash is back with what she calls the strongest voice of her life. She is also back with her first new studio album in a decade, “Rules of Travel,” released last week.
On a recent morning, Cash was ready to talk about her career revival but, showing her family-centered view of the world, she delayed the interview for phone calls from her Manhattan home for several minor crises -- a lost house key, a child’s field trip to Staten Island -- and an apology. “Before we start, I have to tell you I feel a little weird -- all this makeup is for the photo shoot, I don’t do this all the time.” Cash, dressed in her father’s favorite black, is fit, has pixieish features and exudes confidence with her steady gaze.
Her new album from Capitol Records features contributions from Steve Earle, Sheryl Crow and Jakob Dylan, as well as a compelling duet with her father, country music titan Johnny Cash, on the song “September When It Comes.” The elder Cash had recorded with his daughter once before (he sang a few lines on “That’s How I Got to Memphis” on her 1982 album), but this was their first meaningful collaboration. The new song is one of loss and love, creating a poignant moment that the younger Cash was reluctant to pursue.
“I thought it might be too intense because of the subject matter and also my relationship with him is too precious, and I didn’t want anyone to think it was a gimmick,” she said.
It was producer John Leventhal who pressed for the duet. Leventhal is more than a collaborator -- he and Cash married eight years ago and have two children together, and they’ll travel together on the limited album tour planned for this summer. He believed the song was the right one at the right time for the father and daughter to share. His wife relented and now says, “It’s my favorite song on the album, a very special thing for me.”
The younger Cash, is a Grammy winner, has long been a favorite of music critics and was named Billboard magazine’s singles artist of the year in 1988. But none of that mattered to her father when she broached the subject of a duet.
“He told me he would have to read the lyrics first.” She let out a joyful laugh at the memory but then grew quiet reflecting on her father’s failing health.
“It’s a hard time,” she said. “But the truth doesn’t disturb him. No matter how bad it is, if it’s the truth, it doesn’t disturb him. We talked about that, about facing things instead of just turning ever so slightly or avoiding them. He told me he learned that at some point in his career and it changed him.”
Not a straightforward path
If Johnny Cash’s career has been a railroad line in mountain country -- easy to see and straightforward in style despite the ups and down of rugged terrain -- his daughter’s has been a meandering meadow footpath with plenty of gaps. Part of the reason was witnessing the smoke and roar of her father’s public life. “My imprinting as a kid was that fame was about the worst thing that could happen to you.”
Her mother, Vivian Liberto, raised her in Southern California after splitting with the country star in the early 1960s. Nashville was a distant sound until, after high school, she joined her father’s touring show. She became a backup singer and occasional solo performer, but she was loath to commit to it as a career. Famous surnames may jump-start a music career, but they often doom them as well.
She traveled abroad, studied at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute and looked for insight into herself. She found it, to her surprise, back in music.
Her U.S. debut album, “Right or Wrong,” in 1979 began a music career that would be marked by bold risks and the influence of her core music influences, which veered from Tammy Wynette to Buffalo Springfield. Her early collaborator was Rodney Crowell, the Texas singer and producer she married in 1979.
In 1981, she had three No. 1 singles on the country charts from her hit album “Seven Year Ache” and, despite a three-year hiatus, she was one of the country genre’s acclaimed young stars by the decade’s end with her mix of pop and rock sensibilities.
The next two studio albums, “Interiors” in 1991 and “The Wheel” in 1993, were huge retreats for her commercial career, but they were powerful musical statements about the implosion of her relationship with Crowell and the debris left behind. Cash knew well that the gold records and radio airplay were part of what she was leaving behind.
“I stepped out of the playground with ‘Interiors,’ ” she said. “It was part ejection and part voluntary.” Another three-year hiatus followed and Cash began to turn her attention to writing -- without music. Short stories, essays, magazine articles -- she was finding that even as pop music was turning singer-songwriters into practitioners of “some archaic sport,” she was finding a voice away from microphones.
“I was ambivalent about being a singer because it was connected to being very public,” Cash said. “I always wanted to be a writer. I liked the solitary, internal aspects of the life. It was private. And I think I’m better on paper than in person, most of the time.”
Joe Henry, the singer-songwriter who co-wrote the track “Hope Against Hope” for the new album, says Cash’s gifts are “introspection of a vivid kind” in her music and a lifestyle that is more down-to-earth than those of artists who “live in the ether and have a world of private planes and lots of nannies.” Watching Cash lose her voice was harrowing for Henry and others in her circle of friends, but the episode has also created an aura of triumph around the new project. “It’s a wonderful album,” he says, comparing its meld of folk and pop sensibilities to the sonic spirits of Tom Rush, Tim Hardin or early Rod Stewart.
It’s an album that nearly was never made. Cash’s voice failed in 1998 and she thought it was because of allergies at first, but as the weeks wore on it grew worse. At a Northern California charity performance for a hospital, Cash began nervously laughing halfway through because she was reduced to a croak. She begged forgiveness from the crowd and offered feeble cheer by asking, “Is there a doctor in the house?”
The experts would say that the polyps on her vocal cords could simply disappear. Or they could force a surgery that would diminish her instrument. Or they might just rob her of her voice forever. Pregnant at the time, Cash was told that the same hormones promoting the growth of her unborn infant were also pumping the polyps up. The wry twist was not lost on Cash, who had often set aside her career for home life.
“When I lost my voice I was afraid to tell people because I thought they would think I was speaking in metaphors again,” Cash said. “No, this is not figurative, this is not some inner journey. I can’t talk!” She also couldn’t write songs. Without hearing her own voice coming back to her, the exercise was like being a choreographer without dancers. The polyps receded about six months after Cash weaned her new baby. And the fear she felt during the months of silence was replaced by a new dread -- of returning to the studio and songs she had set aside for years.
“It was like plowing through mud for a little while, and then I was just able to do it,” she said. “I felt so much joy. It really reconnected me to the music. I appreciate being a singer now. I never did before.” She laughed again, loud and strong. “I like the sound of it now.”