The drums are sonic-boom loud, the guitars gallop toward power chord thunder and there isn’t a single fiddle or banjo anywhere to be heard on the entire album. The musicians hail from New York and L.A., and the music has a buffed, studio-enhanced gloss more common to music made in those two locales than, say, Nashville. It’s music that implies arenas rather than bars or honky tonks, sung by a woman unashamed to think big, bold and pop.
That description could apply to any number of recent country releases, but in 1985, it could only apply to one: Rosanne Cash’s Rhythm & Romance. Long before Shania, Miranda and Carrie came along, Cash’s album sketched out the blueprint for modern country, unabashedly incorporating arena rock and soft-rock balladeering with a forceful woman at the helm. On its 30th anniversary, Rhythm & Romance can now be seen as one of the most influential country albums of all time — and also one of its most shockingly underrated.
From producer Billy Sherrill’s countrypolitan arrangements to Urban Cowboy-era crossover hits like Johnny Lee’s “Lookin’ for Love” and Kenny Rogers‘ “Lady,” country had already extended a welcoming hand to pop before Cash dropped her fourth album. But starting with its cover — Johnny’s daughter punked out in an orange-dyed buzz cut — Rhythm & Romance amped up that crossover dream. Largely cut in New York and Hollywood, with the likes of Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, guitarist Waddy Wachtel and Late Night with David Letterman drummer Anton Fig among the players, the record announced its intentions on the first track, “Hold On.” The darkly hued piano, electric guitar glissando and reverb-heavy drums were the sound of MTV rock, not country, and even Cash’s lyrics, which asked her man to stick with her and “hold on” for the long haul, spoke to the album’s intentions.
Up until then, Cash had cut three previous records, one of which, 1981’s Seven Year Ache, was a progressive country classic. But like her dad, Cash had a rebel streak in her, and the songs that followed “Hold On” felt like a one-woman insurgence against the pristine roots country of the time (embodied by the likes of Ricky Skaggs and George Strait). Guitars blasted and ripped (“Halfway House”). Hooks were magnified and pumped up, as if waiting to be introduced on air by someone like Martha Quinn (“I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me”). Tender-mercy ballads like “Second to No One” and “Closing Time,” two of Cash’s unjustly forgotten originals, had crystalline guitars and strings more akin to what you’d hear on soft-rock stations at the time. John Hiatt’s “Pink Bedroom” was revved up with a strummy lick that, intentionally or not, paid homage to the one that powered the Monkees’ “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.”
Even for those of us who heard the album the first time around, it’s easy to forget how startling, confident and utterly, proudly unapologetic it was when it first hit stores. (The album also hinted of her future personal-life chaos: Given that Cash’s marriage to Rodney Crowell collapsed just a few years later, some of its songs, like “Closing Time,” feel like precursors to the even more intimate marital-breakdown songs she wrote for 1990’s Interiors.) And none of it would have worked if it hadn’t been for the quality of the songwriting — Cash herself wrote or co-wrote all but two of the album’s sturdy, well crafted songs — and Cash’s delivery. As plainspoken as her father’s, that voice was able to convey resilience, vulnerability, self-confidence and yearning, sometimes all within the same song. It was and remains a voice of quiet, determined power and intimacy rather than melismatic forcefulness — which, come to think of it, could also describe her father’s approach too.
These days, incorporating rock guitar solos, dance beats and even elements of hip-hop into country feels mandatory. But 30 years ago, thinking large scale, as Cash did on Rhythm & Romance, came with zero guarantees. People magazine deemed the album “a disappointment,” and in Billboard magazine’s year-end tally of best-selling country albums, Rhythm & Romance limped in at Number 36.
By the following year, the album’s reputation had improved. Both “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me” and “Never Be You” became Number One country hits, and the former song brought Cash a Grammy for, ironically, Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Yet the album remains semi-forgotten. Cash herself looks back it with utterly mixed feelings. During the torturous year it took to make the album, she clashed with her Columbia A&R man. (Country albums, especially at the time, could be knocked out in about a week, as I witnessed myself while reporting on the creation of a Vince Gill album in Nashville a few years later — five songs knocked out in a day!) As Cash wrote in her memoir Composed, “I still cannot stand to listen to Rhythm & Romance,” particularly the “sophomoric, navel-gazing songs” she wrote for it.
Cash wasn’t entirely wrong. In a few spots, like “Never Gonna Hurt,” the record’s pop-metal bombast got the best of her. The next time we heard from her, on 1987’s King’s Record Shop, she returned to the rootsier, more unplugged and far less brazen sound that came to be known as Americana. The albums she’s made since, including terrific ones like Interiors and 2003’s Rules of Travel, have more or less stayed that course. Alas, Cash never made a proper follow-up to Rhythm & Romance, and that’s as much of a shame as the album’s tarnished rep. It’s the album that proved country could live as large as it wanted while still retaining its soul.