(Photo “borrowed” from McGuire. If he asks me to take it down, I will!)
@1997 Bill DeYoung
In their 12 stormy years together, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash managed to produce, among other things, a handful of albums that came with their own set of road rules — country, folk, rockabilly, straight pop, they all rode together, front seat shotgun, with little regard for what lay ahead, or what grew smaller in the rear view mirror.
The daughter of Johnny Cash and Vivian Liberto, Rosanne grew up in Southern California, and when she met Rodney Crowell they were both in their ’20s and hot to get going on something good. With her wonderfully pliant voice and his ear for a good song, they started making records that married every style that felt right.
In 1979, they married each other because it felt right. Gut feeling counted for a lot in those days.
Starting with Seven Year Ache, her third Crowell-produced album, Rosanne found her audience, and between 1981 and ’89 she scored 11 No. 1 singles on Billboard’s country chart, all but one of them produced by her husband (that was 1985′s “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,” which they wrote together).
After their 1992 divorce, Rosanne moved to New York City, where she lives today with her second husband, writer/producer John Leventhal, and daughters Caitlin and Carrie —both, like her great recordings, collaborations with Rodney Crowell.
We all know there’s a wonderful synergistic thing that can happen with one artist and one producer, where everything clicks. Was it that way with you and Rodney?
Rosanne Cash: From the first record. I think in retrospect we got in less conflict than would have been assumed. We were really young, we didn’t know that much about making records, and we kind of learned together. And we had our personal relationship; it would’ve been really easy for it to just detonate.
But it didn’t. I think the work we did together was a kind of stored energy in our relationship, and it was always good, even when everything else was shit. I always knew work was a safe place for us to be, even if we were struggling or having conflicts. It never got polluted.
Is it true that (CBS Records president) Rick Blackburn had to be talked into letting Rodney produce Right or Wrong, your first album?
Rosanne Cash: Oh yeah. Not only that, on the second album, we had to talk them into releasing ‘Seven Year Ache’ as a single. We were swimming upstream in a lot of ways. We didn’t have a lot of conscious knowledge. We were still just letting whatever came out, come out. Except for the song ‘Seven Year Ache,’ I remember we worked a very, very long time on that. We recorded the entire thing and ended up stripping it back down to the bass—not the drums, the bass. And we re-recorded the whole song from the bass up.
‘Seven Year Ache’ was your first No. 1. How did you write that song?
Rosanne Cash: There is a famous story where we got in this fight, and he left me outside of a restaurant on Ventura Boulevard. But the real inspiration came for me because Rickie Lee Jones’ first album came out, and I was so moved by it, and so inspired, I thought ‘There’s never been a country song about street life, about life on the streets.’ So I started writing it, a very long poem, four pages, and then I turned it into a song.
How did you choose the cover material for those first albums?
Rosanne Cash: We were both songwriters, and both passionate about great songwriters. And that’s what we drew from. We were pretty snobbish about material, so we’d go to our own wells, like Keith Sykes songs.
I assume you got first dibs on Rodney’s songs.
Yeah, it was great. I didn’t realize how great it was at the time. It was a blessing.
Wasn’t it awkward to be married to the producer?
Rosanne Cash: We fought in the studio, definitely, but it was always a really positive arena. Rodney really loved my voice, and he took great pains to get it recorded correctly. It just made me feel so good about myself that he cared that much about my voice, and it gave me a tremendous amount of confidence. He loved me as an artist, and of course I revered him as a writer. It’s just something really, really positive we gave to each other.
I would sulk sometimes, or we would go into separate rooms. I remember throwing the headphones down.
Those early singles scaled the country charts, but they were very much pop records. Did you consider yourself a country artist, or were you just making the best records you could make?
Rosanne Cash: I was just making the best records I could make. Because Nashville signed me, it didn’t make me a country artist, as far as I was concerned. Because, you know, I got my definition of country music really, really young. And I didn’t fit it. Out of respect, I wouldn’t have called myself a country artist! I loved Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline, but I knew that’s not what I was doing.
People think that we really pushed the boundaries, and we opened doors for people, and we started this thing. In a way we did, but it wasn’t conscious that that’s what we were doing. We were just bringing our hybrid influences to record-making.
It was purely collaborative. So much of that was due to Rodney. There were things I would’ve never chosen to do on my own that Rodney, with his very eclectic passions, wanted to work out through me. I would have never done ‘Tennessee Flat Top Box,’ or ‘My Baby Thinks He’s a Train.’ Or ‘I Wonder.’ But I was happy to do it. Truthfully, a lot of my energy was caught up in mothering, and Rodney felt stronger about things than I did at certain times.
There’s a book out now, Three Chords and the Truth, that talks about Rodney’s bitterness and jealousy when your records were successful, and his weren’t.
Rosanne Cash: But he was producing Number One records! He was pretty damn successful.
He was really frustrated, and he said ‘I want a chance to do what you’ve done as an artist.’ And it kind of scared me, because I thought ‘Well, that means he’s going to go out on the road … and that’s my big alarm bell.’
Rosanne Cash: Well, put two and two together. My dad was on the road for my entire life. It was pretty scary.
But Three Chords and the Truth paints Rodney as a bitter man, an unpleasant guy at that time.
Rosanne Cash: No. He had his frustrations, and resentments came up at certain times, but no, he wasn’t bitter. I would never use bitter to describe Rodney under any terms.
Rodney hit in 1988, and suddenly he was The Thing. Was that pretty much the beginning of the end?
Rosanne Cash: Yep. It was. I can’t say how much of it was like your fears coming true, that if we spent that much time apart that it was gonna break us up. That had something to do with it, I’m sure, but the main reason I think Rodney and I completed our work together, both personally and professionally, is that it was done. It was done. We couldn’t do anything more with each other.
We had reached a point of diminishing returns; we had done such great work together, on both levels, that we both had the grace to know when to quit. That’s how I look at it.
Were the Interiors songs about your relationship?
Rosanne Cash: The nature of writing, I think, is when you lose any sense of time and place, and all parts of your present. Part of it was about me and Rodney, but I was so shocked when everybody started saying ‘Oh, it’s a divorce record.’ I couldn’t believe it, because I wasn’t there in my life yet. It was really appalling to me.
The story about ‘I Hardly Know How to Be Myself’ is that you’d left the first verse on a desk, and Rodney came home, worried about what you’d written, and then finished it off. Did you leave it there for him to see?
Rosanne Cash: Not consciously. We both worked up in the same room, and I was really in a lot of pain about him being gone so much. So I started writing this thing. And I thought it was beautiful that he finished it. I love that song.
Isn’t the great irony that Rodney wanted success as an artist, but when he finally got it, the cost was enormous?
Rosanne Cash: I wouldn’t frame it like that, because it makes me seem like a martyr, in a way. And besides, it’s not that simple. It’s far more complex. Like I said before, we had completed with each other.
There’s nothing left undone with Rodney. I talk to Rodney every other day, and there’s nothing left undone. Mostly we talk about the kids. I value what he gave to me so, so much. I would never be the artist that I am if it hadn’t been for Rodney.