Rosanne Cash Rediscovers Her Voice on ‘Rules’

It’s not that Rosanne Cash wanted to stop singing, it’s that she had to.

A pregnancy-related polyp formed on her vocal cords in 1998, shortly after starting work on the album that would become Rules of Travel. The CD arrives in stores Tuesday (March 25).

“My doctor wanted to wait until my hormones were back to normal to see what was happening before she operated, because surgery is scary,” Cash tells “Poor Julie Andrews. That was really uppermost in my mind because she had that tragedy where her voice had been ruined. We had to be very patient, but they resolved it without surgery.”

Patient, indeed. The polyp finally vanished, but for two and a-half years, Cash could barely speak, and on some days, she was completely silenced.

“In the first year, I wasn’t too worried about it because I knew a lot of singers who had had problems,” says Cash, 46. “It just didn’t seem like a big deal. It seemed par for the course if you’re a singer. But the second year, when it was still not back, it really threw me into an identity crisis. It was that classic, ’You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.'”

What she had was a decade-long stretch as one of country music’s most notable artists. Though she has said she felt spurned by the machinery of Music Row, Cash still has bragging rights to 11 No. 1 country hits in the 1980s, from her signature “Seven Year Ache” to the Beatles remake “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party.” She earned a 1985 Grammy, and her 1987 King’s Record Shop album is considered a classic.

Trisha Yearwood , a longtime fan, sought Cash’s harmony vocals when she re-recorded “Seven Year Ache” for her own recent album Inside Out. Yearwood tells, “I think a good song always endures. There are a lot of songs that are hot for the moment, and then they’re gone as quickly as they came. ’Seven Year Ache’ is a quality song. I’ve always been drawn to smart songs. The same can be said for Rosanne Cash. The measure of success is how you’re remembered. For me, Rosanne Cash and her music will always represent class.”

Cash’s brooding 1990 album Interiors ended her chart reign, but Rolling Stone named its 1993 follow-up, The Wheel, as one of the 50 best rock albums by a woman. With guest vocals from Sheryl Crow and Steve Earle, Rules of Travel leans closer to adult contemporary territory, although the melody from “Closer Than I Appear” recalls her glory days.

“That song more than any other on the record definitely references the past. Or my past work anyway,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve departed from myself. I’m still a singer-songwriter, and that’s kind of the bottom line for me.”

Producer-husband John Leventhal and Cash co-wrote the album’s stunning centerpiece, “September When It Comes.” Leventhal persuaded her to ask her father, Johnny Cash , to sing on it. She didn’t want the collaboration to be perceived as a novelty, but his ragged voice ultimately fit the tone perfectly.

“It was important to include him on that song,” she says. “Because the song is lyrically about mortality and living with what is unresolved in your life, about change, about how it’s impossible to go back.”

The lyrics in “September When It Comes” seem to mirror the darkness of Johnny Cash’s latest video, “Hurt.”

“It was devastating the first time I saw it,” she says of her father’s provocative clip which features a 70-year-old Cash resting uncomfortably at home, spliced with footage of a younger Cash hopping trains and winking at the camera.

“I had a tape of it, and I didn’t want to watch it because my sister had said, ’Be careful.’ I didn’t want to see it. I was kind of holding off. Then I went down to see my dad last month and he played it for me himself. It was devastating. But what’s so interesting about my dad is that he was watching this with an artist’s eye. It wasn’t wrenching for him. He has this ability to stare straight at the truth and not flinch. That was the most beautiful thing about it to me.”

Now living in New York City, Cash spent the last decade publishing a book of short stories, a children’s book, numerous magazine articles and a prose anthology from fellow singer-songwriters. In 2002, she participated in the Down From the Mountain tour and joined Mary Chapin Carpenter , Rodney Crowell and John Hiatt for a benefit show in Nashville. She is currently writing a recollection — “I hate the word ’memoir,'” she declares — about her formative years as an aspiring musician.

Asked for a particular story from the book, Cash hesitates and says, “I’m not very far into it, but the first chapter is in 1976 when I moved to London and how that set me up as a songwriter and formed my later adulthood. But there are gonna be stories that it wouldn’t be complete without including, about the people I knew. I wrote a story on Minnie Pearl and how important those [legendary] people were in forming my understanding of country music and the community there. The old guard, you know.”

Cash’s own contributions and influence merited a mention on CMT’s 40 Greatest Women of Country Music special in 2002. She ranked No. 22.

“Wasn’t that nice? I was so pleased with that. I actually wept,” she says with a laugh. “I really didn’t know if the work I had done in Nashville would be remembered or recognized. … I felt so wonderful and so validated.”