Rosanne Cash

Pop music sometimes seems like a refuge for perpetual adolescents, or a place where the middle-aged look back nostalgically at youth. Cash is one of the few singer-songwriters, male or female, who not only transcends the many pop genres she draws from, but also fully inhabits her work as a genuine, emotional adult.

In her eighth album, following in the ground-breaking confessional footsteps of Interiors (1990), Cash continues to honor the complexities of experience with songs of brave vulnerability and rare thoughtfulness. Some listeners have found Cash to be excessively dour, but the truth is that she is an unsurpassed artist of lyrical chiaroscuro, and the play of light and shadow in her songs is lively, moving and honest.

Interiors seemed to take place during a single dark night of the soul, but The Wheel sounds like a series of diary entries by a hopeful, awakening survivor who is tracing the ups and downs of starting over. The album kicks off with the ringing title track, an anthem about confusion turning into passionate affirmation, and then explores the paradox of solitude in the city in the ballad "Seventh Avenue." "Tears Falling Down" shows the proximity of joy and sorrow without diminishing the reality of happiness, and "Fire of the Newly Alive" slyly quotes Springsteen's "I'm on Fire" and offers a passionate female voice on the subject of loving lust. The album's high point is "Change Partners," an achingly beautiful study of rediscovered romance that describes Cash's faith in dreams and new visions: "The courage to go deep/ Is gathered while we sleep."

A few songs fall short by failing to provide the musical firepower to match the intensity of Cash's lyrics. But coproducer and guitarist John Leventhal, who also collaborated with Cash in writing several songs, generally provides impeccable support for Cash's sure-footed melodies, achieving maximum power with minimum aggressiveness. (Columbia)

J.J. Johnson

Known for his darting speed and crisp articulation when he played with such beboppers as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in the '40s, Johnson has matured over the years into a sage of the trombone, blessed with buttery tone and a lively, loping balance of thought and feeling. Vivian finds him in a particularly reflective and lingering mood—and for good reason. The album is dedicated to the memory of his wife of 43 years, who suffered a stroke while on tour with him in Tokyo in 1988 and died of complications in 1991.

Accompanied in a sensitive if conservative manner by Rob Schneider-man on piano, Ted Dunbar on guitar, Rufus Reid on bass and Akira Tana on drums, Johnson plays 10 sterling standards. The most tender, not surprisingly, prove the most moving, including "I Thought About You," "What's New," "How Deep Is the Ocean" and "You Don't Know What Love Is." The trombone can be a comic or a lugubrious instrument. Johnson, 69, never lets you forget that a man of dignity and depth is at the helm. (Concord)

>Rosanne Cash

JOHNNY'S DAUGHTER: I [LOVE] NEW YORK

THE FAMOUS LAST NAME—HER FAther is Johnny Cash—was matched for 13 years by an equally famous marriage to singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, a union that made them hip royalty in Nashville. The artistically fruitful but often tempestuous marriage ended last year in divorce; Cash had earlier left Nashville and moved with her and Crowell's youngest daughters, Chelsea, 11, and Carrie, 4, to Connecticut and then to downtown Manhattan. (Their firstborn, Caitlin, 13, lives with her dad in Nashville.)

"I've been a New Yorker at heart since I first visited here when I was 12," says Cash, 37. "My kids are enjoying the city. I've spent a lot of time here in the past 20 years. I lived here for a winter while making a record, and my manager for the past 10 years is based here. And John Leventhal, who coproduced and plays guitar on my new album, is a lifetime New Yorker, which hasn't stopped him from loving that real roots sound.

"My definition of what country music is has broadened since King's Record Shop [1987] and Interiors. For me, country is a matter of being connected to a source, a feeling. The problem with stricter notions of country music is that it has to be squeezed through the keyhole of Nashville.

"The Wheel has a lot more hope than Interiors. It's more balanced emotionally. I've been teaching song-writing workshops at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, in upstate New York, including a women's workshop. I learn a lot-more than I teach. It's made a difference, having 15 writers working together and going deep into the process."

  • Contributors:
  • Hal Espen,
  • Eric Levin.