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The Feel of the Flames

Issue 123, Winter 2023

Chasing Flames, 2022, oil on canvas by Jemima Murphy. Courtesy the artist and Gillian Jason Gallery

The cover of Rosanne Cash’s album The Wheel possesses a quality beyond her natural allure, the romantic setting of Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace, and even the famed skills of photographer Pamela Springsteen. The photograph captures something ineffable: a revelation.

Cash had been drawn to the terrace but especially to its iconic fountain crowned with an angel, “a quintessential New York location.” Perhaps the dormant Catholic in her, which at that point had given way to a belief in the holiness of Art and a smattering of New Age mysticism, felt the need for a blessing—from the famous angel, from her newly adopted city, maybe even from herself. After all, she had only recently uprooted everything to relocate to the cathedral of steel, glass, and asphalt.

In the photo, Cash stretches out her arms, as if she might be receiving the angel’s benediction or preparing to embrace her new life. Her face is lowered in reverie. Even in monochrome, she is illuminated. She is a woman burning, as she wrote on one of the album’s songs, with “the fire of the newly alive.”

“I had met John and my head was all a-swirl,” Cash laughs, recalling this potent time, “and these songs just started coming out.”

Isn’t that what love does? Brings you back to life, enlivens your senses and loins, and, if you are a writer, invigorates your craft. Maybe that’s why The Wheel occupies such a singular place in Cash’s acclaimed catalog. Released in January 1993 when she was remaking her life, The Wheel led to her falling in love with John Leventhal, her partner ever since. A deeply feminine record centered on a woman in the middle of a personal renaissance learning to live and love again, it has become beloved among Cash’s legions of fans, who connect their own romances and rebirths to its songs.

This year, she and Leventhal, the award-winning instrumentalist and producer who co-produced the record with her, are celebrating The Wheel's thirtieth anniversary with a remastered version released in November on streaming platforms, CD, and, for the first time, vinyl, in both standard and deluxe editions. The album is the first release on Rumble Strip Records, the new in-house label Cash and Leventhal founded after she acquired the masters of her recordings on Columbia, the label she called home until 1994.

Cash and Leventhal are seated in the basement studio of their Chelsea brownstone, sipping on cans of ice-cold San Pellegrino. They have just returned from a weekend trip to Memphis and Dyess, Arkansas, where they played a concert along with Sarah Jarosz and Cash’s ex-husband Rodney Crowell—with whom Cash remains close and whom Leventhal counts as a friend and collaborator—to support the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home. Leventhal stretches his long legs for a moment as if to shake the memory of the plane ride. A deep thinker, a native New Yorker with a Southern heart, he exudes a particular brand of calmness that makes one feel safe, protected. From her perch in a rolling office chair, Cash describes Memphis, her birthplace, with reverence. After decades of forming guitar chords and scrawling hundreds of lyrics, her hands are works of beauty, fingers crowned with plum-colored nail polish. She possesses the graceful ease of a soul who carries whole worlds within herself. As she speaks, her skin and auburn hair glow in the sunlight filtering in from the garden outside.

Cash and Leventhal’s interplay is full of humor and gentle teasing. Framed by artifacts of their craft—a mixing console and desktop monitor, a wall of acoustic and electric guitars, and even an autoharp lurking near a window—they complete each other’s sentences and interject with clarifications. After thirty years, their chemistry is still electric; it is no wonder that few albums are as sensual as The Wheel, their first collaboration.

“It was a very heightened experience,” Cash says of making the record. “I think by the end…we both knew that we were headed for each other.”

She had recently made Interiors, her spare, acoustic 1990 album that was lauded by critics but underperformed commercially. Columbia’s Nashville division failed to promote the album, and after a period of soul searching Cash requested a transfer to the New York division, which promised to market her music beyond a strict country format. Along with this professional upheaval, her thirteen-year marriage to fellow singer-songwriter and producer Crowell, which had produced three daughters and included a stepdaughter, was coming to an end. At thirty-six, she moved with her youngest daughter to Manhattan.

“I had this sense of both being thrilled about what was ahead of me and being devastated in that moment. So there was this unbelievable juxtaposition of something new and thrilling, and being consumed by it.” Then, she adds softly, casting a tender glance at Leventhal, “And by him, you know. He was in my thoughts constantly, and…just everything else was broken apart.”

They had met briefly in Nashville when Leventhal played on an album Crowell was producing, and she was jolted with recognition. Even before she left Music City, the songs started coming. First, the delicate “Sleeping in Paris,” which mourns a relationship reaching its conclusion: No one sees and no one knows / but every day I’m letting go.

Then came “The Wheel,” a song that Cash says erupted. “I was doing something in the house and I thought, ‘If I don’t go get by myself and write down this song, I’m gonna explode.’ And I did. I told the babysitter—I said, ‘Just give me an hour. I have to go lock myself in a room.’ And the whole song came like that. That doesn’t happen very often.”

A hopeful, expansive song, with a narrator who has experienced an awakening, it marked a transformation from the shadowy Interiors. “That song—everything changed. I suddenly kind of looked out again.”

When Leventhal heard Cash play these songs, then still unrecorded, at New York’s Town Hall during her Interiors tour, he was struck by their quality and depth. “I could tell there was a little vortex swirling around her,” he says, gently, searching for the right words to describe her state of mind. She presented him with several songs and invited him to write the music to them and, ultimately, to produce an album. Leventhal was intrigued and agreed to come aboard, but only if she co-produced. After all, she had helmed Interiors alone and had received the sweet vindication of a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Recording.

Cash portrays love as Ithaca, a destination requiring a journey that will impart lessons to the traveler.

The close, intimate confines of the studio created “a lot of electricity.…There was a lot of sexual tension and a lot of—just overwhelming emotions. For me, anyway. I mean, I know for him too, actually.” She laughs and shoots Leventhal a saucy grin.

He throws up his hands in mock reproach. “Too much for the readers of the Oxford American!”

“Yeah, it was there and it was thick in the air. I remember…towards the end of the record—we were mixing at this point, like a lot had happened through the record—and a friend of mine came by the studio and I was sitting on his lap at the mixing board.”

The songs on The Wheel crackle with that tension—lengthy days spent tracking vocals and guitar parts; nights hovered over the mixing board, their keen ears and creative minds attuned to the music, to each other, the proximity of their bodies. The title track, which opens the album, is a declaration of a love that refuses to recognize the bounds of time. I am a river with a voice / I came into your life by choice, Cash sings, urgency piercing her supple voice. Framed by Steuart Smith’s iconic, circular guitar pattern, it sounds as if we are hearing Cash step into her new life.

Throughout the album, fire recurs as a force of change, renewal, and desire. On “The Wheel,” it’s the flame in our souls / it will never burn out. “Change Partners” sees a narrator confronting cosmic upheaval: The heavens rain down fire / the earth and moon conspire. “Fire of the Newly Alive,” which she co-wrote with Leventhal, scorches the listener with its groove and erotic heat.

Using the elements, Cash portrays love as Ithaca, a destination requiring a journey that will impart lessons to the traveler. Grounded by Leventhal’s more earth-bound sensibilities and production, she turns to the skies for portents, to the wind for direction, to water for sustenance. All along the way, the moon seems to govern it all. Love, Cash sings on “Sleeping in Paris,” is just a lunar slave / it’s tied to the ebb and flow.

Neither Cash nor Leventhal deem The Wheel a perfect album. If they could go back in time, the pair would strip down some of the arrangements. Cash worries about her vocals, that she didn’t sing as well as she could have. Both admit to feeling pressure from Columbia, which had sunk a great deal of money into financing the album, to produce a hit.

When it was released in January 1993, The Wheel met with a rapturous reception from music critics. The video for the title track—a medieval desert drama, replete with knights and swords, which Cash confesses to being mildly embarrassed by—received airplay on VH1 and even CMT, despite the fact that country radio had long turned its back on her songs. There was hope that the single, along with others that followed—“Seventh Avenue,” “You Won’t Let Me In”—would make the Adult Contemporary charts, but none did. In the aftermath, Cash remembers sniffing the wind and feeling that Columbia was turning its attention and marketing dollars to other acts on the label. She asked to be released from her contract.

Yet The Wheel still found its audience. There is the pair of foreign correspondents who, Cash recalled, fell in love while listening to the album as they were hunkered down in Afghanistan, reporting on the radicals who would soon become al-Qaeda. There are the devotees who have expressed their ardor for The Wheel on Cash’s social media outlets, most recently when she announced the album’s re-release. The news prompted scores of listeners to proclaim it one of their favorite albums, with many connecting it to turning points—falling in love, new incarnations of themselves—in their lives. Some are doubtless the same fans who, over the years, have regularly admonished Cash after shows and in hastily written notes delivered backstage for not including “The Wheel” in her setlist. There are her fellow singer-songwriters, like our mutual friend Allison Moorer, who have pinpointed the album’s influence on their own songwriting.

And then there’s me.

If music can be metabolized, if it can nourish us like a good pot of tea or a Southern casserole, then there are few albums that have fed me so well as The Wheel. I was almost twelve when the album was released. That afternoon, in the heart of Appalachian coal country, I convinced my father to drive me to the mall twelve miles away so I could buy it with money I had saved from my weekly allowance. The kind of boy who was reading Shakespeare tragedies and Anne Boleyn biographies while others were obsessed with Kentucky basketball, I had already purchased the title track’s cassette single after seeing the video. I sensed that the album, that Cash’s songwriting and voice, could offer me something I so desperately needed: a vision of how my life might unfold beyond the conservative confines of southeastern Kentucky.

The Wheel knew me; it intuited what I needed then and what I would need in the years to come. Although I hadn’t named it, I was already a writer, and The Wheel affirmed it was permissible to love and worry over language without apology. There was something else I couldn’t yet bring myself to name: I was gay. The region’s fundamentalist culture discouraged any discussion or exploration of carnal desire, and Cash’s songs provided a more literate and sophisticated rendering than anything I heard on pop radio. The album encouraged me to question, to doubt. It told me I could change, that I would change, and it prepared me with the knowledge that I would have to leave my place of origin to find personal and creative freedom.

Later, as I began to come out at twenty-three and felt as if I were awakening from a nightmare of denial, Cash’s opening lines of the title track articulated the question I was cradling inside my chest: How long was I asleep? Even now, the remarkable lines of the third verse—the truth moves through us / even when we sleep—send a current of knowing down my arms. To this day, I have an unwavering belief that to recognize me, to really know me, you have to understand my devotion to The Wheel.

I’m not alone in this attachment. Over the years, Cash has been astounded by the number of gay men who have told her how much they cherish The Wheel. One man, who recorded a cover of the ballad “The Truth about You,” pointed her to this verse from the song:

I know the truth about you babe
Where you’ve fallen, where you stand
Where your walls still come between us
Where you take it like a man

“He said he just loved that line, take it like a man. That really meant something to him. But I think it was the elemental stuff, really—not just the nature metaphors, but like that feeling of transformation.”

Leventhal agrees. “There’s this thing in the record about searching, battling to get to this place and sort of declaring, like, Fuck it, this is it—”

This is who I am,” Cash interjects.

“So many gay men have had to traverse that same territory,” Leventhal says. “It always kind of made sense to me…the deep femininity of the record was there. It’s probably the most feminine record she’d ever made.…But I think beyond that, it’s the quest for a complicated identity [and discovering] who you are.”

If music can be metabolized, if it can nourish us like a good pot of tea or a Southern casserole, then there are few albums that have fed me so well as The Wheel.

he Wheel ends with “If There’s a God on My Side,” a song about a woman walking a pilgrim’s path. Everything around her is new, and though certain about the need for the journey, she is nonetheless unsure of her direction. Thirty years later, Cash remains a seeker. But her course has long since been assured. Beyond anything else, this might be The Wheel’s enduring legacy: The quality of the record’s songwriting set Cash on the path to being counted among the nation’s finest songwriters, worthy of mention in the same breath as Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and, of course, Cash’s father.

A few days after we talked, Cash reunited with Pamela Springsteen for another photo shoot at Bethesda Terrace. After revisiting The Wheel through the remastering process, the session must have felt like a reunion with Cash’s younger self—the woman who was, she wrote then, changing like a girl / on the threshold of her life. The shoot was “thrilling,” Cash says. “I felt proud that I’d persisted this long, to see the return of The Wheel after thirty years.”

As she recreated poses beneath the angel’s gaze, Cash says she “felt the passage of time weighing on me at some moments.” When she stared out of the tunnel beneath the terrace, as she had in a photo from the original shoot, “[it] felt bittersweet…like looking into the future.”

With the steady Leventhal by her side, it is assured. Over the past few years, the pair has been collaborating on a planned Broadway musical adaptation of Norma Rae, the beloved 1979 film about a Southern woman organizing a union—which, Cash observes, remains timely. Another record is in the works, and in February, Leventhal will release his debut solo album on their new label.

After our interview, I reached out to Cash. I had a follow-up question about a couple of lines from “The Wheel” that have long held special resonance for me: just to know the question / is good enough for me. They seemed to echo Rilke’s advice to the young poet—to learn to love the questions rather than the answers—and I wondered how that might relate to how she practices her craft.

“I try to start as a beginner with every new work,” she replied. “I don’t want to be an expert. Curiosity feeds everything I do.”

As I read her words, I couldn’t help but think: All these years later, Rosanne Cash is still ablaze.

Jason Kyle Howard

Jason Kyle Howard is the author of A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music and coauthor of Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Oxford American, Salon, the Nation, the Millions, Utne Reader, and on NPR. He directs the creative writing program at Berea College and serves on the faculty of Spalding University’s Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing.