Circa 1981, Rosanne Cash was the country's preeminent Dixie chick, a promising hitmaker with crossover potential to spare and family ties that made her Nashville royalty without even trying.

The daughter of Johnny Cash and the then-wife of Rodney Crowell had gotten off to a false start in 1978, issuing a tepid debut that was released -- bizarrely, but much to the relief of all concerned -- only in Germany. By 1981, though, she was a rhinestone cowgirl, riding high on the success of "Seven Year Ache," a twangy disc with rock flourishes that established the singer-songwriter as a genuine pop-chart contender.

That album's title track racked up heavy rotation on Top 40 radio and became her first No. 1 country hit. Ten more would follow before Cash, trying to escape the Music City's treadmill for female artists (Tour-Hit-Motherhood-Repeat), pulled the plug on her career. "The Wheel," from 1993, was her last major album; 1996 saw the release of the rickety (and aptly titled) "10 Song Demo"; and in 1998, just as she was gearing up for a comeback and a newborn, Mother Nature intervened. Several months into her pregnancy, Cash lost her voice. Singing was impossible. Some days she couldn't even speak.

Circa 2003, Cash's voice is back and her connections are intact. "Rules of Travel," her latest CD, features guest appearances by a bevy of heavy hitters, including Steve Earle, Sheryl Crow and -- to devastating effect -- even dear old Dad.

The Man in Black towers mightily over "September When It Comes," stretching his rich, death-defying baritone tight across the song's Appalachian-style arrangement and insistently picked acoustic guitar. And though the words are his daughter's, they nod knowingly toward the senior Cash's mortality, offering a kind of slate-cleaning farewell: "I cannot move a mountain now / I can no longer run / I cannot be who I was then / In a way, I never was."

"September When It Comes" is the album's somber centerpiece, but "Rules of Travel" is loaded with plenty of smaller-scale wonders. Crow harmonizes on the disc's opener, "Beautiful Pain," a chiming pop tune wherein Cash makes like a New Age mom singing a lullaby to a nu{dier}-metal son: "Trade your moan / For a positive tone," she sings earnestly, before calling him out on his need for others' approval: "Reassured by ads about things you own," she jibes. Elsewhere, Earle growls his half of the bluesy duet "I'll Change for You," and Teddy Thompson's warm voice buzzes softly beneath Cash's on the lovely "Three Steps Down."

But Cash does just fine on her own, too. True, a couple of plodding weepers ("Western Wall" and "Last Stop Before Home") close the album, but "Will You Remember Me" is a stately ballad decked out with clip-clop drumming and a splash of soap opera organ. And "Closer Than I Appear" could be the sequel to "Seven Year Ache," sung from the point of view of a jealous lover who may be out for revenge this time: "You know your heart and your mind," Cash intones wryly. "And I'm just three steps behind."

Half threat, half lament, it's a clever line, one that showcases Cash's knack for pithy but heartfelt zingers. There aren't many of those on "Rules of Travel," though. Seven years since we last heard from her, Cash seems wiser and more reflective. This time out, her music is satisfyingly melancholy, a testament to survival that beats with a broken heart.

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8181.)

Rosanne Cash's latest CD features appearances by Sheryl Crow, Steve Earle and her father, among others.