Like an old friend once said, it's pop music and there's no right or wrong choice; you like what you like for no real reason, but because something hits you up there or down there or, better yet, somewhere in between (your heart, in case you took a wrong turn). Every now and then you need to satisfy your jones for something that makes you grin and gets you off, but ultimately it's the fix that doesn't last. What endures are those songs and artists that talk to you, speak for you, feel for you--make you remember, most of all, you're alive and screwed-up and capable of doing better and feeling better no matter how awful it all seems. You need someone who sympathizes but never judges, who imparts wisdom but with the caveat they'll keep making the same mistakes, too--a friend, in other words, even if you'll never meet.
Which brings us, more or less, to Rosanne Cash, who, over the past 25 years, has become one of those headphone buddies you feel like you've known your entire life. She's the friend who will say what you won't, who will do what you can't, who will make public that which you keep private (like, say, her deep-felt anti-war views, which she has posted on her Web site). She's the one you turn to for advice, though she will be the first to admit she's as screwed-up as you; she's the one you turn on for solace, though she will be the first to admit she's in as much turmoil as you. "My husband will always kind of shake his head and go, 'Nobody would believe what goes on in your head, because it must be so difficult to be you,'" Cash says, referring to her producer and occasional songwriting partner, John Leventhal.
But before you knock her for writing lullabies for grown-ups--meaning, she isn't tough enough for you--consider: She's done her stint in rehab (very Rock and Roll), grew up in the shadow of a big Man in Black and, as Lester Bangs once said, "everybody needs a little vicarious pain." Cash long ago stopped being the daughter of a myth and became a mother to four children of her own and, in a small way, to an audience that looks to a few singer-songwriters for a little nurturing. Till the release of Rules for Travel two weeks ago, her first album in seven years, it used to be her songs were about herself, which built for Rosanne Cash a fanatical audience of people interested in her ongoing autobiography and how it could, on occasion, apply to them. (You know--the more personal, the more universal.)
Her 1990 album Interiors revealed the intimate details of her deteriorating marriage to Rodney Crowell, who produced the disc, as he had done several earlier ones. Though she would later frown upon it being described as her "divorce album," one couldn't listen to such lines as "both of us separate but neither one free" or a song like "Paralyzed," about a woman hearing her husband on the phone with another woman, without feeling a bit like a voyeur.
That she invited you into the house to witness the arguments--the name-calling, the plate-throwing--only endeared her to the audience, which had found in Cash one of those rare singer-songwriters whose confessions sounded like familiar echoes of our own buried conversations. Though her new album is less first-person--less "narcissistic," she says--it's no less intimate and vulnerable. It deals with familiar subjects--"I love the nooks and crannies of intimacy, I love the exploration of that territory," she says, "and I love the differences between men and women"--but feels less sad and more confident. It's as if the tourist found on 1987's King's Record Shop and 1993's The Wheel, among others, has become the tour guide.