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Rosanne Cash finds her voice with "Rules of Travel"

By Brian Baker, May 2003

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Clearly, the album was going to have a very different outlook than it would have five years ago.

"Too much life had gone by in three years," says Cash. "I'd had a baby, 9/11 had happened, my dad had been very, very ill, and I was faced with the prospect of losing a parent, my kids were in adolescence and growing out of it. You bring your life to your projects and none of that life would have been brought to it if it had been finished in '98."

For all of the potentially negative forces that could have had an impact on Cash's state of mind as she picked up the thread of "Rules of Travel," one overwhelming positive outshone them all.

"I came back to it with a new appreciation of being a singer, that this was something I really treasured," says Cash with conviction. "Before, I always looked at it as a glass-half-empty thing and saw my limitations and the anxiety surrounding its performance. I came back to it with more freedom."

Although she readily admits that Levanthal was more driven to finish "Rules of Travel" at the outset, Cash herself was quickly drawn into the emotional whirlwind of completing the album that should have been done five years before. With a handful of tweaks (lyrical finishes to "44 Stories," completion of verses to the title track), she began revisiting and reviving the material on "Rules of Travel."

Early in the process, Levanthal and Cash listened to the songs (which all seem to deal either literally or metaphorically with the road and its attendant journeys) with an ear toward bringing in guests, ultimately finding places for Sheryl Crow ("Beautiful Pain"), Steve Earle ("I'll Change for You") and Teddy Thompson ("Three Steps Down").

Perhaps the single most powerful moment on "Rules of Travel" is Cash's duet with her father on the astonishing "September When It Comes," a rumination on (among other things) life and mortality.

Upon hearing the demo, Levanthal immediately recognized the natural brilliance of inserting Johnny Cash into the song. Perhaps understanding innately how such a move could be perceived as an exploitive maneuver to drum up publicity after a seven-year gap between albums, Cash resisted the notion of even approaching her father about the idea, especially considering his health issues at the time of the sessions.

"That's why I said no the first three times John asked me to ask him," says Cash with a laugh.

Although initially hesitant, Cash took the track to her father's Tennessee cabin studio and watched in amazement as the process of learning and recording his vocals seemed to rejuvenate the elder Cash. When the first collaboration between the pair was complete, there was little doubt in anyone's mind that it had been appropriate and undeniably successful.

"Ultimately it was about the song," says Cash emotionally. "When I took everything else away and what people's perceptions might be and just looked at the song, I knew it was the right thing to do. It's like the ultimate family photo to me. It's really precious to me."

With the completion and release of "Rules of Travel," perhaps the best consequence to come from the experience is Cash's return to the songwriting process, something that she hasn't done since the initial sessions for "Rules of Travel" five years ago.

"I've written four songs since the record came out," says Cash. "I'm back at the place I'm at after I finish every record, which is 'I can't really write any good songs, and I've gotta start all over again and relearn this whole process.' It's the classic writer's thing."

Just as importantly, Cash has rekindled the inner fire to continue the pursuit of her music career, something she had all but abandoned well before the trauma of losing her voice.

"I feel enthused about the whole process now," says Cash. "There was a period when I didn't care if I ever made another record. I didn't care if I ever stepped in a studio or sang another song. I was burnt out not only on the process, but on the industry. I just hated the whole machinery, I hated the values, and I hated having to put myself through certain steps to promote a new record."

For all of the uncertainty and pain that has accompanied Rosanne Cash along the thorny path of making "Rules of Travel," she ultimately believes that the setbacks and doubt and physical and emotional duress she experienced was all for the best and perhaps even vital to her continuation as an artist in the musical community.

"It's like a developmental crisis, you know, it happens in middle age," she says with a laugh. "Mine was just particular to my profession and personality. As it turns out, letting these years go by was a really good thing. I've gotten older so it isn't tempting to play certain games that I might be tempted to play if I were younger as far as promotion or videos or trying to set myself up in a certain way or pop radio or whatever. It doesn't even cross my mind. I'm going to be 48 next month, and this is a mature record. The industry is not really set up for me to promote it, but I'm doing what I can. I'm enjoying the process with less anxiety."

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