It's hard to believe that it's been three decades since Rosanne Cash released The Wheel, an album which - even if she didn't entirely know it at the time - turned out to be the soundtrack to the beginnings of a romance that's still going strong as of this writing, one between Cash and John Leventhal, who started out as her co-producer and songwriting collaborator on the album and ended up as her husband. In addition to being the 30th anniversary of this very personal album, this also ended up being the year that Cash got back the masters to the album, a development which ultimately led her to reissue it on her own label, Rumblestrip Records. In conjunction with the reissue, Cash was kind enough to hop on a Zoom call with Q, one which inspired a conversation that covered a number of different aspects of her music career, including a recent collaboration with The National ("Crumble").
It's a pleasure to talk to you. I've literally been a fan this long. [Produces copy of the 1981 Seven Year Ache LP.]
Then you're kind of old.
[Laughs.] Well, thank you. I'm glad you've been a fan that long.
And I'm glad that The Wheel is getting this 30th anniversary reissue, even if that makes me feel old, too. I'm sure it makes you feel the same.
Yeah... [Hesitates.] I mean, there are a lot of layered feelings to it, definitely.
Well, take me back to the beginning of this album. It was borne out of what was a new relationship at the time, but one which still thrives to this day, thankfully.
Yeah, it was a transformative time in my life, and in John's life. I had gotten divorced, left Nashville - this was '91 - and moved to New York, I'd fallen in love with this guy, I'd been writing songs about him, asked him to write a song with me, asked him if he wanted to produce the record, and by the end of the record, we were a couple. And since that time, 30 years, it's just gotten deeper and better, and we've learned how to write together better, we've learned how to live together better... And the whole idea for this re-release, the 30th anniversary, was because I had a clause in my contract with Sony that I would get my masters back after 30 years.
So I got the master to The Wheel back. Nobody would sign a contract like that now, by the way. [Laughs.] So I got the masters back, and I didn't really expect how moving it would be to own my own master recording. It was kind of spiritual. Like, "Wow, this is really mine now!" But when I got it back, at the same time John had made a solo album - his first solo album! - during the pandemic. And we thought, "You know, getting this master back, and your solo record..." His solo record is called Rumble Strip, so I said, "Let's start a record label and call it Rumblestrip Records, and let the first thing we put out be the 30th anniversary of The Wheel!" So we remastered it, I wrote new liner notes, and on the double vinyl version and double CD version, there are live performances from that year of the songs.
And I just... [Pauses.] I don't usually like looking back. Because I get really critical of myself. "Oh, I could've sung that better, we should've gotten a different arrangement, the snare's too loud..." Whatever! [Laughs.] But I did think it was an accurate reflection of the time. I don't know if I could write those songs now. They're just so full of that urgency of transforming my life.
Would you say it was the most personal album you'd written up to that point?
Up to that point... Well, Interiors was pretty personal. But in a very different way, obviously. I'd say Interiors, The Wheel, and Black Cadillac are really the most personal.
As far as working with John on that album... Just to clarify the timeline, you weren't dating when you started, you were just falling for him, right?
Yeah, I was falling for him. It was complicated. You know, we were both extricating ourselves from relationships and trying to do "the right thing" and really take our time with what we were doing. I had kids, and...it was complicated! It was a lot of figuring out. And I was full of a lot of...longing. [Laughs.]
I think some of that shows. At least in certain songs.
Yeah, I mean, it's everything. It's the despair of the life I'm leaving behind, the thrill of something new, and...him. You know, I was just kind of obsessed with him.
There are four songs on the album that you wrote with him. Were those your first collaborations?
Yeah! "Seventh Avenue" was the first song we ever wrote together.
Did you just fall into a rhythm of collaborating?
Well, it was a bit separate. Like, I went to see Leo Kottke perform, and I was really, really down. John and I were not together yet. And I wrote the lyrics to "Seventh Avenue" on a napkin. I know that sounds like a trope, but I actually did write them on a napkin! [Laughs.] And I thought, "I'll ask him to write the music to this." And he did. And the music is as melancholy as the lyrics. And I thought, "Well, he's a sensitive musician and a sensitive composer, and this could work." And I think we've gotten better at it over the years. But "Seventh Avenue," it's a beautiful song. I still love it.
Do you feel like that's the best of the four?
Well, "The Truth About You," those lyrics were about him...and he got it.
So he knew they were about him?
Well, of course he did. But he would not give it up. [Laughs.] He really held it, played it close to the vest. I think he was terrified! I mean, when I asked him to produce the record, he thought, and he said, "I'll co-produce it with you." And I think he was well aware that I'd had this whole past life of a career - and past life, period - and it had been a successful career in country music. He told me later that he thought, "If this record doesn't work, if it fails, I don't want the whole responsibility!"
As far as songs that are looking toward the future, "Change Partners" would seem to be one such song.
Yeah, definitely. That's right in the center of when it was happening. And "Roses in the Fire," that's what came before. There are moments of real despair. "If There's a God on My Side" was... That was just...oof. Full of an ache.
I think it's because of that ache that the album holds up as well as it does. If people can't necessarily relate to the specifics, they can certainly relate to it in general terms.
Absolutely! I mean, I'm not original. This is kind of a common human experience! [Laughs.] And like you said, all of humanity has longing and hate and suffers and hopes and the thrill of something new. A lot of people have written to me since the reissue, and I really had no idea of how connected people were to it, particularly those who had gone through a big change in their lives or gotten divorced or found a new love. One couple told me that they were war journalists, and they were embedded separately in a war zone, separately listening to The Wheel...and they ended up getting married. Talk about content and context mirroring each other!
You also have an impressive quartet of background vocalists - well, three background and one harmony - on the album: Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Larkin, Marc Cohn, and Bruce Cockburn!
Yeah! All beautiful voices. Marc I met for the first time when I was making the record because he and John were close, and he's just got that white soul voice that's just so beautiful. And then I remember Patty and Chapin, when they were doing the backgrounds on "The Wheel," I remember Chapin standing back from the mic about five feet, just kind of letting her voice soar. It was a real beautiful moment. I'll never forget that image.
Their contributions are all great. But I already indicated that I'm a fan, so I'm obviously a little partial.
Well, thank you. Wow, it's nice to talk to someone who actually really likes the album! [Laughs.] A lot of journalists don't even listen before they do the interview!
I wanted to ask you about a few other things in addition to The Wheel. First and foremost, I wanted to find out more about your collaboration with the National. How did that come about?
During the pandemic, Matt Berninger contacted me and asked if I wanted to write a song together. And we wrote a couple of things together, one which is really beautiful that I'm gonna record, and we actually talked about making a record together. And then he was going through a lot of tumult with the band and realized that he had to make another album with the band, and that fell by the wayside, but I do have these songs we wrote together. So when he was making it, he asked me and John if we would be on this song, "Crumble." Matt has the sexiest voice in the world. [Laughs.] I don't know, it was just a pleasure. I was thrilled to be on it. And at the same time, John and I were doing a Lou Reed song for a Lou Reed tribute record that's coming out next year, and at the same time we were doing this song for the Doc Watson tribute! So it was like covering the spectrum: the National, Lou Reed, Doc Watson... It was great.
Something I was curious about, just because it's who I am: do you remember anything about recording "Broken Freedom Song"?
[The song in question is a track from Johnny Cash's 1974 album The Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me, and it was Rosanne's first recorded vocal on an album.]
Well... [Hesitates.] No. How was I? Nineteen?
Not terribly old, anyway.
[Laughs.] I remember I was obsessed with Kris [Kristofferson's] songs. And I was nervous. Really nervous. It was sweet of my dad to ask me to do it, because I wasn't formed as a singer yet at all. But just singing Kris's words... I remember that. Like, "Wow, this is an honor to sing his words..."
Do you know how he's doing? I recently saw him on a tribute special.
He's... Well, you know, he has dementia.
Yeah, I knew that.
He's...not great. And yet... I don't know if you saw this Willie Nelson special, this birthday thing...
Oh, actually, that's what it was that I saw!
Yeah, Kris and I sang on that, and...he doesn't know where he is or who anyone is, but he's kind of settled in that. He's very Zen about it. And when he walks onstage, he remembers the words to the song. It's kind of unbelievable. And he just... He knows the spotlight. It's like he soaks in the spotlight. But... [Sighs.] Will, as soon as he walks off, he doesn't remember he did it.
At the risk of sounding like a human being, are you comfortable with me including this?
I don't think it's a secret anymore. I mean, you can be kind about how I said it. If you can frame it in a way that he's just in every moment. It's very Buddhist.
So as far as the future of Rumblestrip Records, do foresee doing more reissues?
Well, the next release will be John's solo record. That's due on January 26. I think you'll love it. It's just so elegant, complex, beautiful. His influences are all over it, everybody from Bernard Herrmann and Samuel Barber to Duane Eddy. [Laughs.] After that, I'm not sure. I'm going to start getting a lot of my masters back, so I'm sure there'll be at least one more reissue. I mean, people are telling me they want both Interiors and 10 Song Demo, of all records. But at some point I think that maybe we'll put out somebody else's records. Like, if Ry Cooder wanted to make a nice acoustic record, Rumblestrip would be happy to put that out.
That would be fantastic. And I'm sure there's some old-school country stuff that's probably available for reissue that no one's bothered to do.
That's a great idea. Also, I have these other ideas... Like, at some point I want to do a deep folk album. I sing those songs pretty well, like "Barbara Allen" or "Fair and Tender Ladies." You know, all of those classic Appalachian and Celtic ballads. I'd love to do that. We'll see. I still owe Blue Note one more record of original material, so I've got to do that, too.
As far as your back catalog goes, is there any album of yours that you wouldn't want to reissue or just couldn't bear to revisit?
[Instantly.] Rhythm and Romance. That was a really, really hard experience for me, making the record. I was not in a great time in my life. It took a year. There were a lot of arguments. There were different producers. It was just...not great. And I think I surrendered to some egregious sonic things at the time. [Laughs.] Y'know, like overuse of loud, synthetic keyboards and all of that.
I will say only that the cover is in the category of "None More '80s."
[Laughs.] No kidding, right? Well, the '80s are coming back, apparently!
There you go. I look forward to seeing you revisit that look.
No, no, no, no, no! [Laughs.] Not me. Maybe my daughters, but not me!
You've obviously worked with Rodney [Crowell] since you two separated. How long did it take you two to find a rhythm again where you could work together?
Several years. I think it was actually easier to work together than it was to just communicate about the kids or whatever. Some of old patterns continued on for several years. But working together was always easy. There were two things in particular that I did with him that I really loved. One is "It Ain't Over Yet," with John Paul White. I mean, I just love that song. And then something that was really obscure, you may never have heard it, called "Sister Oh Sister," from an album where Mary Carr, the poet, wrote the lyrics and he wrote the music. And John played on it. It's just a gorgeous song.
When did you and he first work together? I know that you recorded one of his songs on your very first album.
Are you talking about Right or Wrong?
No, it was even before that.
Oh, the German record?
Yeah. Which I've never actually heard. I just know it exists.
Yeah, I was a fan of his work with Emmylou, and I kind of sought him out and asked him to produce. And he had never produced before, so he produced these demos. And then I went to Germany and took the demos with me.
Based on the cover of that album, it looks like they were absolutely trying to position you as the next Linda Ronstadt.
Oh, my God, I look like a baby! [Laughs.] Well, that's so funny that you say that, though, because I have a friend who said, "You know, I saw you in a store before I met you, and I thought it was Linda Ronstadt!" I think Linda Ronstadt and I have the same little pointed chin, and that's what confuses people!
Lastly, when can we expect a new album from you? As you said, you still owe an album to Blue Note, and it's been a few years since your last full-length release.
Yeah, I know: the end of 2018.
I'm sure the pandemic didn't help things any.
No, except I wrote. I wrote this song called "The Killing Fields" that I put out as a single, and I wrote "Crawling to the Promised Land," which we put out as a single as well. And I wrote these songs with Matt Berninger, and then I wrote some essays, too. I wrote a piece for The Atlantic about getting off the road. But you're right, it's been awhile, and it's starting to cause me anxiety. I need to finish writing some songs and get going!