Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash found themselves walking a weird tightrope between career and marriage in the circus that passes for American popular music these days.

The celebrated husband/wife, producer/artist and off-and-on-again songwriting team, in town for separate appearances, has been struggling to balance a load of personal and professional pressures while keeping their separate but occasionally overlapping recording careers on track. Cash, the oldest daughter of country music legend Johnny Cash, has thus far had the most success as a recording artist, carving out her own niche in country rock with her smoky, sultry voice. Yet even with a modest string of No. 1 hits, a Grammy Award and a smattering of gold records, she is still a reluctant star, still battling stage fright. She seldom tours but will be at the Warner next Friday, and will likely join her husband onstage at the Birchmere tomorrow night.

"I really have had to struggle to accept myself as a singer over the years, and I often think I would have been happier to have stayed a songwriter for other people," she says from her home outside Nashville, where she and her husband live with their three young daughters.

"I do want to be a successful recording artist," she says, but ""I really don't {care} if I go five years between albums."

Cash was the first woman to land an album in the No. 1 spot on the Billboard country charts, and even as "The Way We Make a Broken Heart," the first single from her new album "King's Record Shop," inches toward the top, she expresses a faltering confidence.

"I just wish there was some way to successfully make records without being 'famous,' " she says, laughing ruefully. "Fame to me just means having to live up to somebody else's expectations at any given moment ... "

Crowell, on the other hand, loves the limelight and battles to move his career from that of a successful songwriter and record producer to that of a performing artist in his own right.

"My whole attitude is, give me a stage and give me some people to play for," says Crowell. "I feel at home performing -- as a matter of fact, I crave it."

Crowell and Cash have been partners in an occasionally stormy but surprisingly resilient marital and artistic alliance since 1979, when he produced the demos that led to her first major recording contract.

Without ever really intending to, Crowell has emerged as a behind-the-scenes force in the Nashville music industry -- a songwriter and producer with an impeccable track record. His songs have been widely recorded by everyone from Bob Seger ("Shame on the Moon") to Willie Nelson and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, though he says, "I've always written with the idea of performing and recording them myself."

But despite his success advancing other artists and three critically acclaimed (but lightly selling) albums of his own recorded between 1978 and 1981 Crowell found himself entering his late thirties making little or no headway with his own recording career. The first real change was last year's "Street Language" album, his first for Columbia, and a more aggressive venture into southern-flavored rock than his previous efforts.

Things were admittedly not so easy back in mid-1985, when Cash, with Crowell's help as a last-minute producer, was completing her much delayed and beleaguered "Rhythm and Romance" album. Though it ultimately netted a couple of No. 1 singles and a Grammy Award, the making of the album stretched into a grueling year-long process, that, says Cash, "left me drained and really unsure if I wanted to record another one."

It didn't help that life for Rodney and Rosanne, both in and out of the studio, was less than roses. "Rodney and I were trying to figure out how to be in love and stay married, and I was going through drug treatment," she said, referring to a cocaine habit she says she has overcome. "We didn't like the way we were making each other feel, and there was a time when it felt like we just didn't want to keep on.

"I'd become so neurotic and paranoid that my adrenals were pumping 24 hours a day. If you go back and listen to 'Rhythm and Romance,' there's a kind of angst that comes through, which is a pretty accurate reflection of what was going on at the time."

All of which is more or less why Cash had to be prodded by Crowell into making "King's Record Shop." At the time she was enjoying a rather blissful sabbatical from the record business, and was happily immersed in raising their daughters and writing short stories.

The record company had suggested that before Crowell begin work on his next solo album, he produce a couple of new tracks with Cash and "I suddenly realized I had the energy to go in the studio with her again, so I said, 'Let's do it.' At first she was hesitant, but once she saw my enthusiasm, she came on strong."

"I was real adamant about keeping the music stripped down and basic this time," Cash explains. "I didn't want any synthesizers, and I didn't even want any keyboards on the basic tracks, though I did concede that point to Rodney on a couple of songs. I just wanted to peel back all the layers of distance that can develop between the singer and the listener.

"Once we got started, I was amazed at how it all fell together. We recorded it all in about three months. It had its own flow, its own spontaneity. It just fell together.

"Right now," she adds, "our relationship is better than ever. It can really be complex, having separate careers that occasionally converge. But I think we've finally learned what we didn't know in the beginning: how to just pare it down to two people who really love and care about each other. All the rest ... you just have to learn to let go -- like letting go the string of a balloon."