Rosanne Cash's new album Rules of Travel isn't just one of the year's most acclaimed releases. It's also something of a minor miracle, considering the fact that the artist suffered debilitating vocal problems that kept her from singing at all for two-and-a-half years. During that time, she concentrated on raising her new son, Jake, while pursuing her budding career as a writer of prose, overseeing a short story collection, a children's book and various magazine articles.
"I had never really valued being a singer before, because I was focused on the limitations of my voice, anxious about whether I was good enough," Cash recently told USA Today. "And I had always thought the real honor was in writing. But when I lost the ability to sing, it was shocking to me how great that loss was. . . . So when I finally did get my voice back, I felt so much joy. The anxiety I had had about my singing hasn't really come back."
Even without the dramatic back story, Rules of Travel -- Cash's first full-blown studio effort in a decade, if you don't count 1996's stripped-down 10 Song Demo -- is a wholly remarkable achievement. With her husband/guitarist John Leventhal providing sympathetic production, the album sets Cash's intimate, sharply-observed lyrics against subtle, midtempo melodies and eloquently understated arrangements that drive her insights home with indelible authority. Tunes like "44 Stories," "Closer Than I Appear" and the surging title song underline Cash's uncanny knack for mapping the parameters of desire and the internal politics of human relationships.
Rules of Travel features appearances from such noteworthy guests as Sheryl Crow, Steve Earle and Teddy Thompson, as well as outside material penned by Marc Cohn, Jakob Dylan and Joe Henry and former Odds member Craig Northey. But the album's most newsworthy collaborator is the artist's legendary father, Johnny Cash; the pair duets on "September When It Comes," on which the elder icon sings his daughter's words in a frail yet unmistakably strong voice that illuminates the song's cross-generational meditations on mortality.
Cash seems to have emerged from her vocal travails as a stronger person and a more centered artist. As she recently told Reader's Digest, "(It's) such a cliché, I hate to even say it. But it's true -- you don't appreciate what you have until you lose it. The beautiful thing for me is that I got it back, which is not always true of things you lose."