How Rosanne Cash's ‘The Wheel’ became her New York calling card
The 1993 album signaled a rite of passage for women musicians moving to the city and presaged the new Americana movement.
By Kristi York Wooten
After sunrise one morning this August, Rosanne Cash posed on Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace. It’s the same spot where she stood 30 years ago, spinning in a black coat and boots for the cover of her eighth album, The Wheel. Now the recording is being reissued Nov. 17 on the new Rumblestrip Records, the label she launched this summer with husband and collaborator John Leventhal. As they recreated the photo shoot, Cash and photographer Pamela Springsteen attempted to recapture the earthy vibe of their original image as Emma Stebbins’ 1873 ‘Angel of the Waters’ sculpture presided over the proceedings. Three decades after its release, the touchpoints of The Wheel —motherhood, divorce, independence, pursuit of art, new love—are evident in this circular New York fountain scene, which fills daily with strollers, easels and selfie-takers. In 1991, when Cash moved to Manhattan from Nashville, she was neither the first nor only country singer to make a pilgrimage here. On the heels of the acclaimed self-reflections of 1990’s Interiors, the songs she wrote for The Wheel offer a more pointed sense of place, echoing the rhythms of the city and its role as a mecca for women musicians hoping to make a fresh start here—from Emmylou Harris in the 1960s to Tift Merritt, Taylor Swift and Chely Wright in recent years.
Cash arrived in the city with a string of No. 1 country hits under her belt, four kids back in Tennessee and a famous family. Growing up she lived years in Los Angeles and also spent time in NYC at her father Johnny Cash’s Central Park South pad. Her split from husband and country star Rodney Crowell instilled a desire to make it in Manhattan on her own merits. So she took an apartment at Morton Street and Seventh Avenue and started from scratch.
The New York of the early 1990s shares a lot with that of the early 2020s: the city was coping with the AIDS epidemic much like it did with COVID-19 pre-vaccines. Instead of fentanyl, there was crack cocaine. Graffiti was and is everywhere again, the same with gun violence, though murders were 400% higher at their 1990 peak than now. A Village Voice cartoon called out the “privileged poor” who partied at nightclubs in designer clothes but couldn’t scrape together $1.25 for a gold-and-silver “bullseye” subway token. The state’s democrats were nervous about hosting the convention in a city viewed by the rest of the country as too dangerous to take seriously. And yet, it was an incredible time for women artists, who filled museum walls and topped music charts across genres.
Cash became a casual face around town, ditching the glitz and hairspray of her 1980s Rhythm & Romance days and began dressing in her dad’s favorite color. She fell in love with Leventhal, a New York musician and producer she’d met in Nashville and reconnected with in the city, and they started making The Wheel together. The sound was shaped by their courtship as much as “the traffic and the tears” Cash saw outside her window, as referenced in the first song she wrote with him, "Seventh Avenue."
Co-produced by John Leventhal, The Wheel included contributions from Benmont Tench, Bruce Cockburn, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Marc Cohn, Patty Larkin, Steuart Smith and others. It didn't sound like the new country music of the day—or the old. And it wasn't alternative country. Or rock or folk or blues, either. It presaged the current iteration of Americana and exists as an important marker in music made by women, a sound that defied labels at a time when record companies were still eager to dictate artists' image and musical styles.
I moved to New York from South Carolina a few months after Rosanne Cash got there. I was 23, she was 37. I did not know her, but I'd been a listener since elementary school, swept away by "Seven Year Ache" in 1981 as it played through a boombox at the community swimming pool. 1990's Interiors had been one of my favorite albums of all-time, speaking to me with an honesty I did not find on other women's recordings. I played it nearly every day in college. In New York, I watched Cash and Lucinda Williams perform at Summerstage in June 1992, one of my favorite concert memories. I was also there on October 16, 1992 when she performed with Carpenter and Shawn Colvin at the Columbia Records Bob Dylan tribute at Madison Square Garden. By the time The Wheel arrived in January, 1993, the songs made it seem as if Rosanne I and both looked at our new city through the same lens, despite different levels of life experience.
From the sparkling guitar on the title track to the dreamy, doubled-edged "Sleeping in Paris," to the romantic frustration of "You Won't Let Me In," what Cash and Leventhal created was its own genre, a mind-meld that has continued through their many collaborations since. "If There's a God on My Side" was a comfort to any independently spirited young woman trying to make it in New York, and every word of "Seventh Avenue" sends me back to my studio apartment, where I'd sit on a twin bed covered in my great grandma's quilts and listen to horns honking down Broadway with the window open as my snow boots sat drying on the radiator.
When I hear these songs today —every one sounding as potent as ever, even these 30 years later—I'm reinvigorated by the energy of those wide-eyed women we were, our world views changing and converging, our hopes and desires for the future full-steam ahead, unthwarted by the past.
The Wheel was brave. It's the album that made Rosanne Cash a New Yorker and where she led a sisterhood among those paving the way for the new Americana sound.
It's the album where I found a sisterhood in the music.