As the first child born to Johnny Cash and his first wife Vivian Liberto-Cash, Rosanne Cash saw first-hand all her father’s stardom and the ups and downs that came with it. Born in Memphis, the Cash clan moved to L.A. when Rosanne was still a toddler and following her parents’ divorce when she was a teenager, she joined her father Johnny’s road show just out of high school. By the age of 20, she was a featured singer in the show and was soon scouting a record deal of her own. It would have been easy for Rosanne to call on her father’s considerable Music City connections to get her foot in the door, but in true Cash fashion, the eldest daughter took the long way around to her own stardom. She had found a kindred spirit in Rodney Crowell, who was then a member of Emmylou Harris’s famed Hot Band, and the pair set out writing and recording a demo album, which caught the attention of German-based label Ariola. Her first self-titled album was recorded mostly in Munich, and was never released in the U.S. It did, however, lead to a deal with Columbia, which was coincidentally, her father’s label at the time. Following the album’s release, she moved briefly back to L.A. to study at the renowned Lee Strasberg Theater Institute, but soon relocated again to Nashville with her new husband Crowell in tow.
Her second album – and first for Columbia – produced 3 top 40 hits and was a critical success, but failed to launch the young Cash’s career in any big way. It would take Seven Year Ache, her third release in 1981, to light the fire under her career when the title track soared to the top of country singles chart and landed inside the pop top 40. The song’s instantly recognizable melody and stream-of-consciousness lyrics set the template for one of the most commercially successful careers of the 1980s. Two more singles from the album found their way to the top of the country charts and the album was soon certified gold. After this initial burst of mainstream recognition, it seemed Rosanne was doomed to follow the path already trod by Johnny as she fell into a period of substance abuse, and her musical output suffered as a result. 1982’s Somewhere In The Stars fell short of its commercial and critical expectations and had many already dismissing the young singer as a flash in the pan. In 1984, after a stint in rehab, Cash again went into the studio to record the dance pop-flavored Rhythm and Romance. This time writing or co-writing all but 2 of the album’s songs, Rhythm restored Cash’s place at the top of the country charts with 2 chart-toppers and another pair of top 5 singles. With the lead single from this set, “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me”, she also picked up her first Grammy award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
From 1985 to ’89, all of Cash’s singles would hit the top 10 of the country singles chart, with all but 2 hitting the top. She would end the 1980s with a total of 11 chart-toppers. (As many career #1’s as her father, and second only to Reba McEntire among country females in the ’80s.) 1987’s King’s Record Shop was an embarrassment of riches, housing 4 consecutive #1’s – a first for a female album at the time – and is a start-to-finish classic. King’s Record Shop was also Cash’s final album of “country” material, barring her next Hits collection with 2 new songs. As the 1990’s dawned, Cash began to take her music in a more introspective singer-songwriter direction that didn’t play well on country radio at the time, and probably wouldn’t have in any era of the genre’s history. It’s interesting that an artist at their apex would make a bold maneuver and risk career suicide, but that’s exactly what Cash did. Interiors was not only introspective, but very autobiographical as the material stemmed from her personal problems and fighting with Crowell.
As the 1990s rolled around, Cash was out of favor with radio – having charted only 1 top 40 single from Interiors – and none of her subsequent singles from her final Columbia release, 1993’s The Wheel, even made a dent on the country charts. No singles were released from Ten Song Demo in 1996 and Cash ended the decade not a hit maker, but as an Americana mainstay and elder stateswoman of sorts in the newly minted fringe format. She divorced Rodney Crowell in 1992, while recording The Wheel, an album ripe with themes of despair, regret, and divorce overtones. She married the album’s co-producer John Leventhal in 1995 after settling in Manhattan.
Coinciding with the release of 10 Song Demo on Capitol Records was the Hyperion release of her first novella, Bodies of Water, a collection of short stories with mostly southern gothic leanings. A pregnancy and vocal chord problems in the late ’90s kept Cash out of the recording studio. She instead published a children’s storybook and was the editor of a collection of prose by noted songwriters. 2003’s Rules of Travel was her first studio album in nearly a decade and also earned her yet another Grammy nomination, this time in the Best Contemporary Folk Album category. Though the album produced no charting singles, a poignant duet with her father on “September When It Comes” received scattered airplay, and the album was a year-end critic’s favorite. Inspired by the successive deaths of her father, mother, and stepmother, Cash’s next album, Black Cadillac, directly addressed those losses and the beautifully dark affair was again heralded and earned her another Grammy nod.
Following brain surgery in 2007, which caused her to cancel many tour dates in support of Black Cadillac, the singer continued writing for major publications such as The New York Times. In 2009, she issued another studio album, The List. Culled from the now-famous list of 100 Essential Country Songs compiled by Johnny Cash for his teenage daughter, the album features sparse retellings of a dozen of those songs, and was another critical favorite.
Recent years have seen Rosanne Cash continuing to build on, and protect, her father’s legacy. Most recently, during the 2008 presidential election season, she issued a scathing public statement rebuffing remarks made by singer-songwriter John Rich saying it was “dangerous” in the case of the elder Cash to “presume to say publicly what I ‘know’ he thought or felt”. Rosanne continues to tour and record with other notable artists, and is especially witty and interesting with her tweets. Keep reading this month as we feature the musical output of this bright, talented, and enduring woman.