Any rock and roll singer struggles with aging. Rock started as a part of a youth revolution, the music of adolescence and explosive, difficult-to-control energies that needed urgent release. Elder rockers often struggle to maintain their initial ferocity. They adapt in ways that seem to compromise their mission and previous catalog, coasting on the oldies and releasing thinly veiled imitations of the songs that made them famous.
Country music has a different model, one that’s often based around experiences acquired and tales told. In country, age isn’t something to run from—it can freshen and deepen an artist’s career. In fact, while rock bands often rocket into stardom early on, several famous country artists didn’t hit it big until much further into their careers—Willie Nelson, for example, started working in Nashville in the early ‘60s, but it took until the mid-‘70s for him to become a star. George Jones began putting out albums in the second half of the ‘50s, but he also waited more than a decade to reach peak form. His signature tune, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which has been called “the greatest of all country records,” didn’t come out until 1980.
Country also emphasizes longevity. Willie Nelson and his peer Merle Haggard are still going, almost an eternity—and probably close to two hundred albums—after they started making music. In comparison, the singers Steve Earle and Rosanne Cash have hardly gotten started. But Earle, who released his first album in 1986, released The Low Highway last year, and Rosanne Cash, whose debut came out in 1979, just put out an album of her own. Both artists are well into their middle years, but they seem to have little trouble avoiding the traps that await your aging rock star.
Earle does this through versatility and humor. The Low Highway is a “serious” album—Earle sings about the “ghost of America watching me/ through the broken windows of the factory” and the towns where “nothings ever gonna be the same.” But Earle knows that a joke can drive home a point as well as a somber pronouncement. “21st Century Blues,” which sounds like it could be a Bruce Springsteen song, starts out disappointed. “Here I am in the 21st century,” Earle sings, “I have to say it ain’t as cool as I hoped it would be.” Springsteen, however, would never follow that line up the way Earle does: “where the hell is my flying car?” (Considering the importance of cars to Springsteen, he probably should be wondering the same thing.)
Earle also doesn’t allow himself to get comfortable musically. There’s a lot of traditional country instrumentation. But the second track is all crunch and smash, channeling the fire of early Earle records, which borrowed liberally from both country and rock. The song is about making drugs in a dead-end town where there are no jobs and no way to get out; it’s grim stuff. But “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way” appears not long after, working around a jaunty shuffle, dimly reminiscent of the Beatles’ “I’ll Cry Instead,” except upbeat, fiddle-heavy, and sung by a growly old man.
Every time Earle gets stuck exploring a single topic or single sound, he’s self-aware enough to break out of it. In “Invisible,” a song about homelessness, Earle tracks the vocals on the hook so that they’re tight, low, and monotonic, like an early ‘90s songs from Nirvana. The sentiment is early ‘90s indie too—“Everywhere I go, people pass me by/ they never know cause I’m invisible”—though the violins and pedal steel that slip and slide around the track are not. In contrast, “After Mardi Gras” has shifty, flickering rhythms and sweet backing vocals. It’s a complicated song: the beat says swing, the tone says cry, and the words suggest—either winkingly or practically—that you should shrug it off and enjoy a party while you can.
Rosanne Cash’s new release, The River & The Thread, seems to exist almost beyond aging, sidestepping the concept like she doesn’t believe in its premise. The river in the title appears throughout the album, suggesting both continuity and inevitability. In the first song here, Cash sings, “a feather’s not a bird/ the rain is not the sea/ a stone is not a mountain/ but a river runs through me.” This string of proverb-like statements suggests a key to Cash’s particular brand of zen. Rivers may age, but as mere mortals, we don’t usually notice. Cash looks to model herself on these meandering bodies of water.
The album begins with a laundry list of different locations: “I’m going to Florence gonna wear my pretty dress,” Cash sings. “Then I’ll drive on through the Memphis, past the strongest shoals/ and onto Arkansas just to touch the crumbled soul.” She is all over the place, but somehow, she’s also unchanged. In “Money Road,” she warns, “you can cross the bridge and carve your name/ but the river stays the same.”
The River & The Thread revolves around Cash’s clear, even vocals—not forceful, but strong—with some gentle support. String sections and backing vocalists swell gently, but they make sure to stay out of Cash’s way. She occasionally steps aside to let a bluesy guitar solo take center stage. “When the Master Calls the Roll” sounds like a reworked version of an old folk spiritual, a civil war-referencing song that might have appeared on an album by the ‘50s duo Ian & Sylvia. Cash is completely at home in this musical setting. Only twice does she feel the need to push the tempo and volume a little harder. “Modern Blue” has the album’s sturdiest arrangement, opening with a sparkling electric guitar lead of the kind of that animated some of her biggest hits, and “50,000 Watts” bubbles and lopes.
“Etta’s Tune” is a song about the relationship between Marshall Grant—who played bass in Johnny Cash’s original backing band the Tennessee Two—and his wife Etta. “I don’t stare into the past,” sings Cash, “there was nothing that we could change or fix, it was never going to last.” Funnily enough, Cash’s relaxed approach allows her to find her way to a state that many tense young rockers aspire too—living in the moment, embracing the now. In this song, the words may be meant for Etta. But they suit Cash just fine.