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Singer is back with 'Rules of Travel'

NEW YORK — It's not a good sign when the doctor who has sent a tiny camera attached to a tube down your throat steps back from the picture and says, "Whoa!"

The doctor, who had been checking Rosanne Cash to see why she was having trouble singing, said she'd never seen polyps that large on a patient who hadn't been smoking for 40 years.

"Oh, great," thought Cash.

Thus began a 2 1/2-year odyssey that threatened Cash's livelihood. But this is a good news story: Cash's voice came back, coaxed by a lot of hard work, and the evidence is on "Rules of Travel," her first CD in seven years. It will be released Tuesday.

The music is in keeping with the personal, singer-songwriter style that Cash, a country music star in the 1980s, adopted after moving to New York City at the end of that decade. The darkness that enveloped much of her work, particularly on the 1990 landmark disc, "Interiors," has largely lifted.

Cash was working on the album in the summer of 1998 with her producer and husband, John Leventhal, when they learned she was pregnant. Soon after, she noticed her voice getting scratchy.

No problem. It was probably just an allergic reaction or laryngitis, Cash thought. But when it didn't go away after three weeks, Leventhal suggested she get it checked out.

The doctor said the polyps had been small, but the hormones of pregnancy made them grow. Cash had to wait it out; her voice didn't fully return until six months after she stopped nursing, when her baby was about 18 months old.

"In the beginning, I thought, 'It's no big deal,' " Cash said over lunch in downtown Manhattan. "I've known tons of singers that have had polyps. It's routine. I was going to give this time to the baby, so it didn't really bother me too much."

By the time her baby had passed his first birthday and she still couldn't sing, "I got pretty freaked," she recalled.

"It was the classic thing — you don't appreciate what you have until you lose it," she said. "A complete cliche. I missed it far more than I thought I would."

Depressed by how she sounded, she didn't pick up a guitar for nearly two years. She didn't write a song. Her self-esteem took a pounding.

"I can't sing, I can't play, I can't write songs," she said. "I'm an OK cook, but is that going to last me the rest of my life? Is writing prose enough for me? Would I be happy just with that? It was a big, resounding no."

Since Cash had always carried a certain ambivalence about her career, that was an eye-opening revelation.

The musician's life had unpleasant associations for her as she grew up. Her dad, singer Johnny Cash, divorced her mom, struggled with substance abuse problems and was constantly on the road when she was young.

Now she realized how much it meant to her.

When her voice started to recover, she hired a vocal coach with a certain amount of trepidation.

"I was really afraid he was going to say, 'You're never going to be able to sing again,"' she said. "But he just said, 'You're seriously out of shape.' For a while, I could only sing one or two songs in a day. Then I could sing three or four. After a year, I could sing a whole set."

She picked up the pieces of "Rules of Travel" after it had been abandoned midstream.

Cash sings duets with Sheryl Crow, Steve Earle and Teddy Thompson on the disc, and accepts a songwriting contribution from Jakob Dylan. No partner was as special as the one on "September When it Comes."

The song is, at least in part, about facing the mortality of a parent. Cash's husband said it was only natural for her to ask her father to participate.

Except for one time in the early 1980s, father and daughter's voices haven't been heard on record. Rosanne was sensitive about carving out her own career and didn't want to appear like she was piggybacking on his fame.

With those concerns passed, she had to worry about whether her father, 71 and in ill health for several years, was physically up to it.

"He was very fragile," she said. "The fragility of it is part of the beauty to me. It's very endearing."

Even if few people hear the song, "it's something I can give my grandkids to go with the family photographs," she said.

"Rules of Travel" isn't a country album, but there's evidence Cash is more comfortable with those roots than at any time since leaving Nashville. The new song, "Closer Than I Appear," is a sly homage to her 1980s work, the sound reminiscent of the hit "Seven-Year Ache."

In concert recently, she performed that 20-year-old song and another country hit, "I Don't Know Why You Don't Want Me." She told how that song was written after her disappointment in leaving a Grammy ceremony empty-handed — then it won a Grammy itself a year later.

Proud of "Rules of Travel," Cash still admits to being a little surprised that Capitol Records kept her after so many years on the shelf. She recently visited Capitol's offices to meet the employees responsible for getting discs to radio stations.

"I was introduced to the guy who does Top 40 and I said, 'Hi, I won't be seeing much of you!"' she said. "It is a different business and I was not sure where this was going to fit in."