Being the child of a famous country icon typically presents more hurdles to overcome than easy, already established pathways to success – it’s even harder to establish a unique image once success comes, if at all.
For Rosanne Cash, though, the biggest initial hurdle came in deciding whether she truly even wanted to become a recording artist. The daughter of famous country icon Johnny Cash didn’t live as closely under his wing growing up as one may think. Rosanne was only 12 years old when her parents divorced, and while she and her sisters spent their summers with their father, they mostly grew up in Southern California with their mother. Her father’s long battles with drug addiction coupled with his relentless touring schedule meant that, in essence, her childhood was distanced from the spotlight yet affected by it all too harshly anyway.
A turning point came, however, the day after her high school graduation, when she left California to go out on the road with her father, joining a package show that included Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters as well as Carl Perkins. She’d learn Carter Family songs from sisters Anita, Helen, and June, and be taught guitar lessons from Maybelle and Perkins – and join the entire cast for the final piece of show every show, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” – but it was initially meant as a way to kill time.
As she says in Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary, she thought her experience would boil down to: “travel the world, stay in nice hotels, and see Dad play [and] I’ll go to college later.” But it eventually meant much more. She started writing poems and putting them to song, eventually leading to her father giving her a list of 100 essential country songs to know, serving as her education.
But the story doesn’t quite go from that to, “Rosanne Cash becomes a country music superstar.” She had her doubts over whether she even wanted to become a recording artist, given that she knew the toll her own father’s career took on his family and health. And she also had her doubts whether she could ever be known as someone other than just “Johnny Cash’s daughter.”
So from here, the story diverts and twists: Cash moved to London in 1976, recorded an album for the German Ariola label that was never released in the United States, and returned hone afterward to study acting. She underwent a deep depression caused by a severe lack of confidence in her vocal abilities, and it took months to even complete that first album. Ironically enough, the one record label that had paid attention to what Cash created was Columbia Records – the same label for whom her father recorded.
And yet, in wanting so desperately to stand out from her father’s looming shadow as a global icon, Cash ironically retained arguably the biggest reason he was such a global icon – fearless individualism as an artist. She began a romantic relationship with Rodney Crowell, whom she married in 1979 and had produce a new album for her at Columbia. Using some friends from Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band – renamed the Cherry Bombs – as session players, Crowell took Cash into the studio, where she used her life experiences to craft her own image in country music.
Her first chart hit was a modest top 20 duet with Bobby Bare titled “No Memories Hangin’ Around,” and its parent album served as a modest starting point for the artist. But her real breakthrough would come in her sophomore major label project – spearheaded by another duet, in a sense. The title track to Cash’s Seven Year Ache album itself took approximately six months to write and finish, and was inspired by an argument Cash had with Crowell outside of a restaurant on Ventura Boulevard. But it also drew inspiration from rock singer Rickie Lee Jones’ self-titled debut, which Cash described as an album of “street songs,” stating that after her argument with Crowell, they left each other on the street. It started as a long three-to-four page poem and was distilled down to a song that drew praise from Guy Clark, and became Cash’s first No. 1 country hit (of an eventual 11 total), first pop hit, first gold record, and first Grammy-nominated record. With follow-up No. 1 hits from the same album like “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train” and “Blue Moon With Heartache,” she dubbed the sound of her new record as “punktry,” comfortably adopting a new wave attitude to country music while also embracing its past. In that moment, Cash had arrived, sounding like nothing and no one else before her, and standing as her own artist – just as she had always wanted.