The only two young country artists who have managed to cross over into the pop market during the '80s are Rosanne Cash and John Anderson. Cash made it in 1982 with her unforgettable "Seven Year Ache" and Anderson scored a year later with his languid rocker "Swingin'." Both have the kind of talent and style that could register with the pop audience, but since the country-rock rapprochement of the early '70s, country and pop seem again to have receded to quite separate audiences.
Both their new singles and their new albums -- Cash's "Rhythm and Romance" (Columbia FC 39463) and Anderson's "Tokyo, Oklahoma" (Warner Bros. 25211-1) -- are doing predictably well on the country charts without denting the pop charts. In Anderson's case, this state of affairs seems altogether fair, since "Tokyo, Oklahoma" is the least ambitious and satisfying album of his career. In Cash's case, however, it is unfortunate since "Rhythm and Romance" confirms her status as one of the brightest songwriters and most moving singers in all of pop.
"Rhythm and Romance" is Cash's first album in three years, primarily because of her insistence that the album consist mostly of her original material. The eight songs she wrote or cowrote here prove well worth the wait. Cash continues to imbue the conventional pop romance with haunting melodies and a broad emotional and intellectual sophistication. The emotional power and realism of her songs derive partly from autobiographical sources: namely, her sometimes stormy marriage to singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell.
Cash's songwriting knack is apparent in her new single, "I Don't Know Why You Don't Want Me," whose clever verses and contagious chorus are built around a witty musical dialogue between Cash and Crowell. The song was originally inspired by Cash's failure to win an award on Grammy night:
I'm in the right mood
I've got my new shoes tonight
I don't know why you don't want me.
As it progresses, though, Cash and Crowell's teasing repartee broadens the song into a moving romantic scenario full of self-doubt, threat and reassurance.
Cash's songs are all outfitted with adroit arrangements that draw on country, pop and rock styles. In "Halfway House," a pounding beat and Waddy Wachtel's ominous fuzz guitar underscore Cash's dark account of a period of drug abuse and its horrible emotional fallout. In "Second to No One," a delicate acoustic guitar frames Cash's poignant and forlorn plea for fidelity within her marriage.
Cash's voice has been described as "wet," which is as good an evocation as any for the sweet, sensual quality her intimate delivery conveys. Beyond her delicious vocals and her often uncanny lyrical and melodic flair, however, Cash conveys a strength and honesty in her heart-baring songs that are exceptional within pop music. This is particularly evident in the chorus of "My Old Man," a song about her father, Johnny Cash:
So let him be who he wants to be
'Cause he ain't ever gonna be young again
And let him see who he needs to see
'Cause he never had too many friends
And ask him how he remembers me
'Cause I want to know where I stand
How I love my old man.
On "Tokyo, Oklahoma," it is not the Nashville formula that John Anderson succumbs to, but rather the formulas engendered by his own success. Since his emergence in 1980 as a savior of honky-tonk fundamentalism, Anderson has strayed toward both harder rock 'n' roll and softer pop. While Anderson's new album is full of comic rockers and string-laden ballads, there isn't a single hard country song here. Anderson's soft drawling, note-curling delivery still conjures Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard, but his singing has become so refined and mannered that it has lost its dramatic edge.
Although Anderson's woeful vocal style brings an appropriate dose of fatalism to the Womacks' "It's All Over Now," the conventionally professional country-rock instrumentation never challenges the Stones' hit version. Similarly, Anderson's lazy, slurred singing fits the bluesy "A Little Rock 'n' Roll" and "Twelve Bar Blues" perfectly, but again the Nashville arrangements and playing never ripple the music's glossy surface, much less break a sweat. Most of the rest of the songs are the kind of maudlin ballads that Nashville songwriting pros hope Kenny Rogers will pick up. It's hard to tell whether it's the lyrics that draw all the pathos out of Anderson or the fact that he knows his career has slipped out of the honky-tonk and into the supper club.