We’ve now entered the ‘80s, one of my favorite and most misunderstood time periods in country music, due to how bizarrely creative it could be at its best. At a glance, however, it would seem historians haven’t exactly favored this era, due to how the Urban Cowboy movement gave way to a lot of sleepy (and sleazy) pop-country. Indeed, that timeless dichotomy of traditionalism and progressivism is a part of this decade, but more often than not the artists who emerged during this decade were refreshingly … individualistic; not quite belonging to either side of the divide while also exemplifying both sides of it at other points. Our first album (and artist) to represent this decade stands as proof of that, but we’ll also explore career high-points from established legends, stylistic pivots that took certain artists to the next level, and plenty of career debuts from artists now considered legends themselves. So … onward!
There’s no way to present this review without mentioning Johnny Cash at some point, and that’s the weird paradox of addressing Rosanne Cash’s career at all. It’s a familiar tale for children of established country music legends, and it often presents more hurdles to overcome than easy, already established pathways to success – especially when it comes time to prove to audiences that those children have an image of their own, and aren’t just standing behind familiar shadows.
It’s arguably even harder when the parent artists foster a cultural legacy that looms just as large as the music itself. Johnny Cash’s long, notorious battles with drug addiction coupled with his relentless touring schedule meant that, in essence, Rosanne’s childhood was distanced from the spotlight yet affected by it all too harshly anyway. And though she fostered the same artistic fire as her father, when it came time for her to actually pursue her own recording career, there was still that desperation to be herself – to attain success on her own merits as an artist, rather than just be known as somebody’s daughter.
That is, in a sense, why I’ve picked (what is technically) her sophomore album to introduce the ‘80s for this feature, because Seven Year Ache is an individualistic artistic statement. By the early ‘80s, outlaw country already felt like a faded memory, and the lusher, more refined pop-country of the ‘70s gave way to a smoother, sleepier, and more conventional variety, thanks in part to the cultural phenomenon of the Urban Cowboy movement. Certain artists planted the seeds for the eventual neotraditional movement to counteract this trend as well, but that’s a development where the results will show in later editions of this series.
So, where does Cash fit into all of this? It depends which one you mean. Johnny struggled to capture the same commercial highs as he entered the ‘80s – especially compared to contemporaries like George Jones and Merle Haggard – and wouldn’t quite fit in to country music’s established boxes ever again … until he’d later make his own. Rosanne, on the other hand, was just getting started, and refreshingly didn’t fit into any particular mold, either. That’s the fascinating conundrum with Rosanne Cash’s albums: I could have selected the pop-rock-influenced Rhythm and Romance to spotlight, or the more low-key and defiantly country King’s Record Shop. Or I could have selected the starkly confessional Interiors, recorded in the aftermath of her divorce from then husband Rodney Crowell. Any would have worked to spotlight a talent I feel has never gotten her fair due in country music.
In other words, it’s hard to synthesize Cash’s music down to just one descriptor, and that’s when happens when years of pent-up emotional restlessness and rebellious attitude get their time to grow and shine. She’s country, pop, new-wave, and rock, and while she wasn’t ever quite neotraditional, her records did help bring back some of the edge to country music that had been lost in the early half of the decade, which leaves us with Seven Year Ache.
Granted, I think in acting as somewhat of a first step in tempering that musical melting pot, there is something about this album that feels more individually song-focused above all else. Not that that’s a bad thing or that it doesn’t come together to form a cohesive package, but it does hop intentionally between different styles – in part to respect her upbringing and influences, and to show what all she could do. I’ll give credit to Rodney Crowell’s sharp, robust production in time, but I think the real command in tone comes from Cash herself. I am, of course, referring to her delivery by saying that, a performer just as capable of being the confident hellraiser as she is the wounded one hurt by love.
But it’s also reflected in the song choices themselves. For as much as this album’s iconic title track defines its legacy (and for good reason), outside of it and “Blue Moon With Heartache,” this album is more about her turning songs written by men into her own. And considering how immediate and abrasive her delivery can be, when it opens with “Rainin’” off its blustering blues textures, it turns a song that’s ostensibly about heartache into more of a demanding plea for a partner to come back – lonely, but certainly not down and out, as if it’s one last shot in the dark and she’ll be fine regardless.
Of course, if we do want to flip the script and land squarely in that territory, her take on Merle Haggard’s “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go” is achingly sad in just how much it reflects her at rock bottom. And considering she turned an already classic country melody from him into something even more fitting for those dark and dusty honky tonks, it’s an odd, ballsy marvel to behold. The same goes for “Blue Moon With Heartache,” anchored in those beautifully lush, liquid strings and polished electric axes to offer that settled nighttime feel, only for it to reveal itself as far more depressing than that, where Cash is on the edge of goodbye due to neglect and personal insecurities, feeling depressingly lonely in a way that’s just raw and uncomfortable.
And the same can be said for when she’s on the other end of the spectrum, doling out the heartache on “Where Will the Words Come From?” but feeling no less sympathetic in how tough it is to confront that for the sake of one’s own happiness. Granted, if we’re really looking for the crown jewel of complex relationship-themed songs here, it doesn’t get much better than the title track and how she brutally calls out her own partner for his philandering ways – especially when you consider the personal attachment to it through one of Crowell’s own transgressions.
Oddly enough, though, that might also feed into one of my main nitpicks for this album. When you have a song as paradoxically direct in its point-of-view and complex in its execution written from that personal perspective – especially from an artist who’d only showcase more of her unique point-of-view in her writing on later projects – it does somewhat highlight the piecemeal aspect of this project as a whole. It’s certainly still not an uncommon feature of albums released during this time, but I will be honest and say that some of the faster up-tempo tracks here feel out of place and less convincing than more sobering selections here.
Sure, it’s fun to hear her flip Steve Forbert’s “What Kinda Guy?” into her own, but it’s a goofy throwaway cut as it is, and it feels even more stiff and forced coming directly off “Blue Moon With Heartache.” I’ve also never been wild about “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train,” not just for that slightly off-putting vocal echo, but also for just being another moment that breaks up the tension in an oddly jarring way sandwiched in between “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go” and “Only Human.” At least the Tom Petty cover of “Hometown Blues” is jumpy in a way that feels more anxious and urgent wrapped in its youthful energy.
I’d also be remiss not to say that, while daring for its time, some of the production choices – particularly the synthetic elements and hand-clap percussion – haven’t aged particularly well, though not to the point where it distracts from the material. The closest offenders may be “I Can’t Resist,” which slides into easy-listening territory and feels lightweight even despite the beautifully creamy saxophone interplay, and “Only Human.” Even then, with the latter, much like the title track, there’s so much raw vulnerability on display as Cash demands respect from a partner where the relationship is frayed, that it cuts through regardless. And that might be the best to summarize this album: it’s experimental but bridges a gap between new horizons and classic ground; it offers enough of a unique artistic perspective and shows that it can slide into other territory well, too; and it’s the bedrock that clearly influenced many artists to come, from Mary Chapin Carpenter to Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, and so many more. Even outside of cultural impact or importance, though, it’s worth the revisit – an ache that’s ran wonderfully for decades now, with no cure in sight.
Join me next time, where we’ll turn from a new artist hitting her stride to a veteran doing the same, with George Jones’ I Am What I Am.
2 thoughts on “World Records, No. 11: Rosanne Cash – ‘Seven Year Ache’ (1981)”
Great review and it was nice to revisit some of these songs with the benefit of the backstory you provide. She is I agree under rated yet oddly a leader in Americana and doing a great job keeping the traditional music alive.
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Years ago, I purchased a Rosanne Cash Super Hits CD. I think the only song I knew before buying it was “Seven Year Ache,” but it turns out that it also included “Blue Moon With Heartache” and “My Baby Thinks He’s A Train” that I now realize are on this album.
“Seven Year Ache” is one of those no-doubt classic songs, but I’d never listened to the album before. It’s really good and I agree that it does a good job of balancing her various sounds and influences.
I’ve always really liked “My Baby Thinks He’s A Train” and I quite like most of the songs on this album, even though, as you’ve noted, it’s more of a collection of songs than a cohesive set (but that kind of makes sense giving her various influences and that she was a relatively new recording artist at the time). I’m not a huge fan of “I Can’t Resist” but “Hometown Blues” is one of my favourites here – I particularly enjoy the Emmylou Harris harmony vocals.
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