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Rosanne Cash Remembers ‘The Wheel’ As A Turning Point

Pamela Springsteen

In 2018, Rosanne Cash was granted the “Spirit of Americana” Free Speech Award, a lifetime achievement prize for socially conscious artists who use their platforms to advocate for positive change. Her father Johnny won the first one in 2002. But pulling back on the career of Rosanne Cash, was it the right award category? Why not songwriting for the woman who penned “Seven Year Ache” and Americana award-winner “A Feather’s Not A Bird”? Why not the performance award for an artist who topped the country charts almost a dozen times in the 1980s during her breakout phase and who developed into one of the most accomplished performing writers in the format?

With that said, I’d argue that the Americana honor that fits Cash best is the Trailblazer Award, a prize shared by Lyle Lovett, Shawn Colvin and The Mavericks. Cash carried the heaviest burden - the expectations around being the daughter of Johnny Cash - and found her own voice without ever getting snared in the nostalgia around his life or her whimsical step mom June Carter. Rosanne’s partnership in the 80s with her first husband Rodney Crowell was the pinnacle of cool during a decade with so much soft focus schmaltz. Her records weren’t just critics’ darlings; they went Gold and lit up the radio, leading to No. 1 hits from her iconic albums Seven Year Ache and King’s Record Shop. She’s a founding mother of Americana music, and a 68-year-old legend with no shortage of projects and if anything a growing impact on the cultural conversation.

The latest evidence of that isn’t a new album but an old album on a new label, a project with her husband John Leventhal called Rumble Strip Records. The first release, out late in 2023, is a 30th anniversary, remastered special edition of The Wheel, the pensive yet propulsive opus from 1993 that she produced with Leventhal. Thanks to a “reversion clause” in her contract with Columbia Records, the master recording came back under her control, something she said felt empowering and moving, given the import of the release in her life.

“I don't like looking back generally. I'm excited about what's next,” Cash says in Episode 269 of The String. “I still feel a lot of creative energy and enthusiasm for what I do. But getting this master back, I just thought, you know, this was a watershed moment in my life. It's the first album John and I made together - the first songs we ever wrote together. Everything changed for me after that album. And even though maybe some songs sound dated, whatever. I'm owning it, literally and figuratively.”

As the 1980s gave way to the 90s, Cash was in some turmoil. She’d been a major figure in country music for almost a decade, with five CMA nominations as Female Vocalist of the Year and ten chart-topping singles. She’d had three daughters with Crowell and mothered his own daughter from a previous marriage. Yet that relationship was falling apart. It was also clear that her direction as an artist was veering away from country’s mainstream, especially evidenced by her darker 1990 album Interiors, which laid bare some of her struggles. And then she met John Leventhal. The story involves a completely unknown Jim Lauderdale, and it’s a good one. But what she remembers most vividly is encountering his guitar player and saying to herself “Oh my God, my life is gonna get so complicated.”

Leventhal, a native New Yorker, was a close collaborator with Marc Cohn on his breakout 1991 album and had produced and co-written Shawn Colvin’s mighty Steady On album of 1989. Cash loved both. She’d also wanted to live in New York since her teens. So she made the pivotal move of her life about the same time she sought Leventhal’s help producing what would be The Wheel. And by the time they were finished in mid 1992, they were together and on their way to a great love story that abides to this day.

I love hearing some of the particular Leventhalian guitar tones and percussion concepts that made it from Steady On to tracks on The Wheel, because he was making some of the best-sounding albums of a time that needed more taste and less synth. The album is revealing and drama-filled, but not lugubrious. The opening title track sparkles like a newcomer enthralled with Manhattan, as Cash sings “I am a river with a voice./I came into your life by choice./And none can judge just how that feels.” The aura of a woman giving herself space to remake herself for a new chapter, indeed a new life, saturates the album. It’s a thrill as well to have this important album out on vinyl for the first time ever, and the special edition includes a live set of music from The Wheel from Austin City Limits.

We talk about some of the most vulnerable and self-actualizing time in Rosanne’s life, but also about the influence of her father and her mother, Vivian Liberto. We hear a bit about her hopes for Rumble Strip Records. And more. I was a bit star struck even over Zoom. Any reasonable and knowledgeable person about Cash’s legacy and life would be.

Up next for Rumble Strip Records is the first-ever solo album by John Leventhal, arriving Jan. 26.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>