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Rosanne Cash finds her voice with "Rules of Travel"

By Brian Baker, May 2003

Rosanne Cash doesn't take anything for granted these days. She knows how lucky she is to be talking about her new and quite possibly best album, "Rules of Travel." In fact, she knows that she's lucky to be talking at all.

Five long years ago, Cash and husband/producer John Levanthal began the process of making "Rules of Travel." The album's songs had been assembled with Cash writing the lion's share of the material and picking up some help from a few stellar friends (Joe Henry, Jakob Dylan The Odds' Craig Northey, Marc Cohn, Robert Burke Warren and, as always, Levanthal).

Just as the sessions kicked off, Cash found out that she was pregnant. The joy of that discovery was tempered by a darker event: the nearly complete loss of Cash's voice. Recording ground to a halt.

"For a couple of years, I sounded like Tom Waits with laryngitis and that was on a good day," says Cash with a laugh from her New York home. "Some days, I could just barely whisper. Some days, I couldn't talk at all."

Cash's doctor discovered a polyp on her vocal cords and informed her that it was a fairly uncommon hormonal side effect of pregnancy. She was assured that after delivery, the polyps typically went away. Unfortunately in life, just as in her amazing and singular music career as a pop/country hitmaker and as the daughter of the legendary Johnny Cash, Rosanne Cash was anything but typical.

In 1999, she and Levanthal welcomed the birth to their son Jake. By early 2000, Cash's voice had yet to return.

It was a strange circumstance for Cash. She had always been something of a reluctant superstar, even when her albums effortlessly spawned 11 number 1 hits in the '80s and '90s. She tended to think of herself as a writer first and a performer second and a distant second at that.

When she lost her voice, she was actually somewhat relieved at the prospect, believing in some ways that it completely defused the pressure of having to follow up 1993's well-regarded "The Wheel" and the intimacy of 1996's "10 Song Demo."

As she waited for her voice to come back, she concentrated her creative efforts on her burgeoning prose writing career, finishing a second children's book, writing magazine articles and editing a book full of musical essays entitled "Songs Without Rhyme."

They were nice diversions, but Cash never saw them as replacements for her musical career.

"It wasn't a fallback," she says. "I've always been very passionate and serious about it, but I always thought of it as an adjunct to being a singer/songwriter. I never thought that I'm only going to have this left."

But as the weeks stretched to months, Cash was forced to confront the possibility that her singing career had just ended, not on a high note as such, but on no note at all.

"I hadn't resigned myself to it, but I was going through a dark night of the soul about the possibility," says Cash. "I didn't know if I was going to get it back, and I didn't expect to feel the loss of my voice so deep and so sad."

Suddenly, the once hesitant singer was terrified at the thought of a voiceless future and began to question her own muted identity. Her ability to effectively parent her children was even disturbingly cloudy.

"I remember clearly one day standing at the bottom of the stairs, struggling to yell up to my kids, and I couldn't get it out," says Cash with a retrospective laugh. "John came over and yelled up to them, 'Don't make your mother try to yell at you!'"

The other unfortunate side effect of Cash's vocal malady was the understandable depression that accompanied it, a psychological darkness so pervasive that she found it impossible to pick up a guitar and attempt to write.

"I couldn't write songs," says Cash. "To pick up a guitar when I couldn't sing with myself was too depressing."

Although she was despondent over her vocal impairment, Cash continued to monitor the music scene, which inspired its own set of frustrations and issues."It was very frustrating," says Cash. "I felt like the kid who wasn't invited to the playground."

Finally, in the fall of 2000, Cash's voice slowly began to heal. With a long convalescence and the help of a vocal coach, her voice grew in strength and range until she had regained the abilities she had lost for over two years.

"I was lucky," says Cash without a hint of irony. "It took a long time, but at least I didn't have to have surgery, and I got my voice back."

By the time Cash was physically able to resume work on "Rules of Travel," the songs (with a few slight exceptions) that would comprise the album had remained largely unchanged; it was everything else that was different.

Cash had gone for over two years without hearing her real voice inside her own head, and when it finally emerged again, she had to get used to the sound of it. And that was the least of it. '

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