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WALKIN' OVER THE LINE : Roseanne Cash Keeps Pushing Country's Boundaries

December 13, 1990|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

Instead of coasting on her family name, Rosanne Cash has devoted her 11-year recording career to pushing against the boundaries of what the conservative country music market will allow.

This time, it looks as if Johnny Cash's first-born child may have gone too far.

Cash's excellent new album, "Interiors," has been a slow starter on the country charts. That may be because it sounds even less "country" than her previous albums, which had more in common with the Linda Ronstadt/Jackson Browne mode of California soft rock than they did with conventional Nashville twangin'. Cash's vocal style is direct and unadorned by the drawling, yodeling, or catch-in-the-throat emoting of country convention. In their production and instrumentation, her records use country elements more as an accent than a foundation--much like Ronstadt, circa "Heart Like a Wheel."

Despite that independent approach, Cash, 35, has usually fared just fine on the country charts. Her last album of new material, "King's Record Shop," yielded four No. 1 singles.

But "Interiors" sounds a lot different from what country radio listeners are accustomed to hearing. The sound is muted, spare, and almost claustrophobic--an approach that is fully in keeping with the somber, inward-searching themes Cash explores on this deeply psychological collection. When it comes to finding an audience, "Interiors" might be better directed toward people who like Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman and Sinead O'Connor than to fans of George Strait and Reba McEntire.

If not precisely a concept album, "Interiors" does have a central theme and tone as Cash portrays people caught in disintegrating relationships that threaten to destroy their sense of self and leave them emotionally numb.

There are glimmers of hope but no ringing affirmations. In song after song, Cash sings about the need to scratch away at misperceptions and disguises and see clearly in a relationship. The concluding song, "Paralyzed," acknowledges that the truth can be shattering when the veils finally come down but liberating nevertheless.

This is not new territory for Cash. Her 1985 album "Rhythm & Romance" was a virtually autobiographical look at the near-collapse of her marriage to Rodney Crowell, the veteran country singer-producer. After that album, which included "My Old Man," an uncompromising song about her loving but insecure feelings about her father, there was no questioning Cash's artistic toughness and acuity.

Cash grew up in Ventura, where she lived with her mother, Vivian Liberto, after her parents divorced when she was 11. After high school, she spent three years traveling in her father's show. Cash explored writing and acting studies before deciding to try for a recording career.

Crowell started out as her producer and soon became her husband (they have four children, including one by Crowell's previous marriage).

While Cash's new album is inner-directed, she has taken a public stance on a number of political issues, testifying against efforts to slap labeling requirements on pop records, and founding a Nashville-based environmental organization, the Earth Communications Office.

On this tour, Cash's songs will be pared down to their basics: she is backed only by a guitarist, Steuart Smith.

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