This is an updated edition of the story that originally posted 9/8/09
The south-of-the-border intro to this song portends a romantic tale. Or so it would seem. The story in “The Way We Make A Broken Heart” is one of desire and fulfillment, but the pleasures are at someone else’s expense. This might compel a sense of guilt.Yet the way Rosanne Cash tells it, the guilt can be dealt with quickly.Then it’s time for more enticing matters.
In one of her finest vocal performances, Cash plays the role of a woman wanting a guy who belongs to someone else. She’ll get him soon enough. Her kisses and even more alluring pleasures makes the guy forget about the one waiting at home. Feelings of guilt are dismissed as the two devise plots to be together. She has a four-step plan to win her guy. The woman waiting at home seems a willing victim or too dense to know what’s happening right in front of her. She probably deserves a broken heart.
The come-hither vocals by Cash have a sense of coolness and detachment. Actually, she’s beyond cool; she’s cold. As the story moves along, she determines the rejected woman will not only be cast aside this time, but again later by someone else. One assumes the guy will have his heart broken too. He’s been coached by a pro but she’ll take him out of the game. Then she’ll find someone else to follow her game plan. This is love as a predatory exercise. Perhaps the Cash character will come to regret all this herself. Eventually.
This song is one of four from her 1987 album, King’s Record Shop, that topped the country charts. Along with Cash’s fine vocals is brilliant playing by several of Nashville’s finest. It’s reminiscent of the great recordings by Patsy Cline; a career highlight for Rosanne Cash.
Cash had recorded “The Way We Make A Broken Heart” before, in ’83, with the song’s composer, John Hiatt. It was to be included that year on Hiatt’s Riding With The King album, but wasn’t released until it was part of the late ’90’s collection, The Best of John Hiatt, 1973-1998.
The original by Cash and Hiatt has more of a rueful tone. The introduction is similar to that of The Drifters’ “Under The Boardwalk” but the beachfront sound doesn’t obscure the unhappiness in their voices as they review deceitful plans. The song’s pace is slower than that of the later recording, allowing the listener to perceive the pair’s guilt and fears (boredom? further betrayal?) as they pursue their own pleasures.
John Hiatt as songwriter is best when making observations, even if it means passing judgment on characters he views with empathy. The character he portrays opposite Cash on “The Way We Make A Broken Heart” is way past enjoying his lusts. The role resembles that of the alcoholic in “The Usual,” a Hiatt song covered by Bob Dylan in ’87. The alcoholic is not happy with his inclination, but is resigned to the life he’s made for himself. He declares, “I’m not thirsty but I’m standing in line…..I’ll have the usual.”
Hiatt’s songs have been widely covered, with Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez, Willie Nelson, Three Dog Night and numerous others joining Cash and Dylan. In ’89, Hiatt and Cash paired up again, on his “One Step Over The Line,” along with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Volume Two. It was a splendidly delivered performance. Rosanne Cash doesn’t simply sing the songs of John Hiatt; she embraces them with great fervor.
A knowledge of great songwriters comes easily for Rosanne Cash. Not yet out of her teens, she was the recipient of a list of what her father, Johnny Cash, quite adept as a songwriter himself, considered the 100 greatest country songs ever. They were fine selections by Johnny. Textbook material. Rosanne made that clear more than three decades later when she recorded 12 of those songs on her album, The List, released in October 2009. The songs on The List were written by the likes of Merle Haggard, Hank Cochran, A.P. Carter, Bob Dylan, Harlan Howard and others. Each of the songs, Johnny Cash would tell you, are graced with enduring characters and/or intriguing circumstances. Just like the songs of John Hiatt.