INNOCENT WORDS ISSUE #121 AUGUST 2017 COVER STORY: Rosanne Cash: Remembering King’s Record Shop

Rosanne Cash.

Anyone who wants to paint Rosanne Cash’s music into the corner of simply country is making a huge mistake. You see, Cash, like her legendary father Johnny Cash, is a pioneer in music. Decades before modern-day country went mainstream, mixing country with rock, Rosanne Cash was mixing her country roots with rock & roll, pop, folk, and blues.

She was one of the first female performers who was labeled a country musician but didn’t have ties to the Nashville inner circle. She didn’t even turn to the home of country music to look for contributing songwriters and musicians. A trail blazer? Most definitely. A rebel? Without a doubt. And it all paid off.

“I never thought about it that way. I made my very first record in Germany, and my first two American records in Los Angeles. I wasn’t living in Nashville,” Rosanne Cash said “I grew up in Southern California, and I was a sponge for everything musical in the 60s and 70s. I was in the Emmylou axis when I was making my first two records with Rodney Crowell, and Emmy and Brian Ahern and the group of musicians they worked with was who I was hanging with, recording with, performing with. The Nashville scene didn’t mean anything to me, although I certainly respected the songwriters and deeply loved Kris [Kristofferson], Mickey Newberry, Waylon [Jennings] and many more. It was just a different circle. The Enactron Truck, parked on Lania Lane in Beverly Hills, was ground zero for musical collaboration.”

By the time 1987 rolled around, Cash had a few No. 1 singles on the country charts to her credit and crossed over to have hits on the pop charts. The year also saw the release of her sixth studio album, ‘King’s Record Shop.’ Originally released June 26th, 1987, ‘King’s Record Shop’ stands out as one of the most influential albums of the late 1980s, and it still holds up today. It became a main staple of radio airplay, giving Cash four chart-topping singles—”Runaway Train;” “If You Change Your Mind;” “The Way We Make a Broken Heart;” and “Flat Top Box.” It was the first time a female artist ever had four No. 1 singles, and she never saw it coming.

“I don’t think people have gut feelings about how many number ones an album will have. If they do, I don’t know those people! I did have a feeling about “Tennessee Flat-Top Box,” just because it was so In Your Face: direct, fresh, but rooted in tradition. The drummer was brought to tears when we were recording it, he was so happy.”

Thirty years after its initial release, Cash’s vital album is seeing the light of day again with a beautiful vinyl edition featuring a trio of bonus tracks (“707,” written by John Kulzer, and a pair of live tracks, “Runaway Train” and “Green, Yellow and Red.”). Released by Legacy Records on 180-gram vinyl, ‘King’s Record Shop’ is a varied collection of covers and originals produced by her then-husband and longtime collaborator Rodney Crowell.

“I loved recording this album. The previous album, ‘Rhythm and Romance,’ was a bit torturous. It took a year, three cities, three producers and a label executive I clashed with. It was just difficult in a lot of ways. I went in to make KRS hopeful, but a little gun-shy. It was a joy from the first day. The spirit of collaboration and camaraderie and the quality of the musicians was unparalleled. I met guitarist Steuart Smith for the first time during the recording, and he was so intense, and so detail-oriented, to the point of obsession, that I was a little annoyed with him at first. Then, at some point on the second or third day, he played something during an overdub that almost knocked me over with its beauty. I was stunned. It was as if I saw into the man’s soul, in eight bars. I was ashamed of my judgment. I fell in love with him right then, and he and I grew to be great friends, and ultimately toured together. On tours, we invariably ended up in the hotel bar talking about books after shows.”

The 13-track album has Cash writing three of her own songs—the folk-rock ballad “If You Change Your Mind” (co-written by steel guitarist Hank DeVito); the honest ballad “The Real Me,” which showcases Cash’s range of emotions, from weakness to honesty to hope; and the 80s rebel rouser “Somewhere Sometime.”

Most of the tracks on ‘King’s Record Shop” are little stories—some pretty, some not so much, but they always have integrity. For example, the albums opener, a cover of Eliza Gilkyson’s “Rosie Strike Back,” flexes Cash’s feminist muscle in a time when music was headed by the boys. The song also features splendid backing vocals from Patty Smyth of Scandal and Steve Winwood.

“[“Rosie Strike Back”] got some notice, for sure. It wasn’t a common topic on country radio. It wasn’t a single—but it was the opening track on the record, which gave it a spot of importance. I got a lot of letters of thanks for recording it, but Eliza Gilkyson, who wrote it, deserves the real credit.”

Along with Gilkyson, Smyth, and Winwood, Cash calls upon her favorites, a who’s who of songwriters, for the remaining tracks, like “The Way We Make a Broken Heart,” written by John Hiatt, which has a Tex Mex swing to it. Folk legend John Stewart gives Cash the brilliant relationship song “Runaway Train.”

“If a song has already been recorded, you don’t have to ask ‘permission’ to record it. Only if a song is unrecorded, then you have to ask the writer. So, I didn’t ask Hiatt’s permission to record “Broken Heart,” but I told him I was going to, and he was effusive in his praise when he heard the finished version. It’s very satisfying to please a songwriter!”

Another songwriter Cash covered on ‘King’s Record Shop’ hit close to home. She did a rousing version of her father’s 1962 hit single “Tennessee Flat Top Box” to perfection. The song was suggested by Crowell to record and Cash wasn’t sure who wrote the song.

“I wasn’t sure. Rodney said he thought dad had written it, and I said I wasn’t sure, I thought it was public domain. We didn’t bother looking it up, and there was no Google. So, I wasn’t sure. But it makes sense—I’d known the song my entire life. It had just been in the atmosphere. I thought it had been around since Shakespeare. My dad was deeply pleased, and proud, that I did “Tennessee.” He took out a full-page ad in Billboard to express his happiness when the song went to number one on the charts.”

‘King’s Record shop’ is bookended by the magnificent closer “Why Don’t You Quit Leaving Me Alone?” penned by Tom Petty & the Heartbreaker’s keyboardist Benmont Tench. The album also features an all-star cast of musicians, including Crowell; Vince Gill; Smyth; Winwood; (background vocals); Mark O’Connor (Mandola); Benmont Tench (piano, keyboards); Larry Crane; Billy Joe Walker, Jr.; Randy Scruggs; and Steuart Smith (guitars).

“[Benmont] sent me “Why Don’t You Quit Leaving Me Alone” and I loved it. We had worked together on a Petty song that was meant for a film, but it didn’t pan out. Benmont and I became friendly at that session. So, when we were making KRS, we were in Los Angeles toward the end of the process, and just asked Benmont to meet us at the studio to do a piano-vocal track. Then he put those wacky little synthesizer things on, and it was done. It was a lovely experience.”

Inspired by and named after King’s Record Shop, which was owned by Pee Wee King’s younger brother Gene, in Louisville, Kentucky, Cash’s album earned a Grammy for Best Recording Package (given to Bill Johnson for his album cover design). Cash was also nominated in that year’s Best Country Vocal Performance, Female category.

“I had seen the hand colored photo in Hank DeVito’s house. Hank had taken the photo and colored it. I loved it, and asked him to re-do it with me in the picture for an album cover. He said no, it had been too much work to color it, but he would see if they could photo shop me in (this was in the very early days of photo shop). Bill Johnson, the art director at Columbia, won a Grammy for that artwork….he was so skillful in making it work. Then I visited King’s for a press conference when the album was released. It was fantastic. Such a shame it’s gone.”

It’s hard to say Cash was at the top of her game with ‘King’s Record Shop,’ because 30 years after this release, she is still at the top of her game. Here’s the thing: This Cash album is like most of her albums; her vocals pull you into the story and keep you there. Cash sings with power, grace, and elegance as if she is reading a classic novel to you. You just want her to keep on singing and hope the story never ends.


AUG 1 Malmö, SWEDEN Duo with John Leventhal Kulturbolaget
AUG 3 Trondheim, NORWAY Rosanne in Conversation with Festival Director Petter Myhr St. Olav Festival
AUG 4 Trondheim, NORWAY Duo with John Leventhal St. Olav Festival
AUG 18 Walland, TN Rosanne and John join Emmylou Harris Blackberry Farm
OCT 21 Dyess, Arkansas Rosanne and Band Johnny Cash Heritage Festival
OCT 26 New Braunfels, TX Rosanne and Band The Brauntex Performing Arts Theatre
NOV 17 Plymouth, NH Duo with John Leventhal The Flying Monkey