Rosanne Cash’s span as a chart-claiming country artist lasted from 1979 to 1993, a period that paralleled almost exactly the time she was married to fellow singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell. What one circumstance had to do with the other is a question best left to biographers. But what is certain is that the songs Cash wrote, recorded and propelled to the top were dark and foreboding, depicting a personality not sure of itself and always under emotional siege.
Cash turns 64 Friday (May 24) and is currently promoting her new album, She Remembers Everything. Judging from the title cut, which she wrote with Sam Phillips, there are still wounds left to heal.
In 1980, she set the tone that has prevailed throughout her career with “Couldn’t Do Nothin’ Right.” Although she didn’t write the song, she invests it with all the cracked-china vulnerability that would persist through her 11 No. 1 singles (including her Grammy-winning “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me” (1985)) and eight albums for Columbia Records.
Following her divorce from Crowell in 1992, Cash moved to New York and began establishing a literary presence there, even as she was switching her musical focus from country to what has come to be called “Americana” music. She has written four books and edited a fifth and has had stories and articles published in Rolling Stone, The Oxford American and The New York Times, among others.
The year 2015 was a banner one for Cash, beginning with winning three Grammys for Americana and American roots recordings and concluding with her induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, an institution in which her father, Johnny Cash, has held membership since 1977.
Here is a 10-song sampling of the music that best portrays Cash’s singing and songwriting. The voice she adopts is that of a woman unappreciated, under loved and discarded. Observed at a distance, such relentless introspection can be a drag. But with Cash, it’s like watching a skilled helmsman navigate troubled waters, tacking this way and that to minimize the impact of the waves and finding a kind of fulfillment simply in not capsizing. It makes for an exhausting voyage, of course. But it beats the hell out of sinking.
1980: “Couldn’t Do Nothin’ Right”
Writers: Karen Brooks, Gary Nunn
Key lyrics: “I couldn’t stay here if I wanted/I couldn’t stay here if I tried/You were always so disappointed in me/I could never do nothin’ right.”
1981: “Seven Year Ache”
Writer: Rosanne Cash
Key lyrics: “Everybody’s talking but you don’t hear a thing/You’re still uptown on your downhill swing/Boulevard’s empty, why don’t you come around?/Baby, what is so great about sleeping downtown?”
1982: “Blue Moon With Heartache”
Key lyrics: “What would I give to be a diamond in your eyes again/What would I give to bring back those old times/What did I say to make your cold heart bleed this way?/Maybe I’ll just go away today.”
1985: “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me”
Writers: Cash, Rodney Crowell
Key lyrics: “Just when I think that I can make it without you/you come round and say you want me now/You tell me don’t leave and I want to believe you/Why can’t you see just how much I need you?”
1986: “Second to No One”
Key lyrics: “I don’t think you know how bad you treat me/but I can’t live like a whore/She thinks she’s got the key to your heart/Now I’ve got to wait by the door.”
1987: “The Way We Make a Broken Heart”
Writer: John Hiatt
This song looks at heartbreak from “the other woman’s” vantage point–but with a guilty awareness of what betrayal feels like. Key lyrics: “Just one more kiss she’ll have to miss this night with you/Now you’re guilty of this secret love as I am too/You’ll get used to telling lies feeling sorry when she cries/Now that the strings aren’t attached you’ll catch on we’ve done our part/Oh this is the way we make a broken heart.”
1988: “If You Change Your Mind”
Writers: Cash, Hank DeVito
Key lyrics: “Call me on the telephone/Darling, I am always home/if you ever change your mind.”
1990: “What We Really Want”
Key lyrics: “I want to call out your name I want to hold out my hand/A woman silent in the mirror tonight wants to talk to your mirror man/ and what they really want is love, and what they really need is love.”
1991: “On the Surface”
Writers: Cash, Jimmy Tittle
Key lyrics: “Maybe our lives will never be the same/but we can face tomorrow if we can just get through today/I’m holding back the tears while you’re pushing me away/But on the surface everything’s okay/ yeah on the surface everything’s okay.”
“She Remembers Everything”
Writers: Cash, Leslie A. Phillips
Key lyrics: “Who knows who she used to be before it all went dark/Was she like a streak of fire, a painted glass, a beating heart?/All the mirrors, all the smoke she’ll read a thousand times/versions of the third degree, yours and hers and mine.”