CMP Talks with Rosanne Cash about life, her legendary father and her extraordinary new album.
Rosanne Cash’s new album, The List, could be called the Dead Sea Scrolls of country music. A strange analogy, but an entirely apt one for a disc with twelve tracks by Cash from a list of 100 essential country and roots songs compiled for her by her father, the legendary Johnny Cash, when she was just a teenager. For 35 years, the existence of the list was unknown outside the Cash family. But now, Rosanne Cash has brought 12 songs from her father’s list vibrantly and powerfully to life with this album.
With songs identified (some might say “anointed”) as foundations of American music by the Great Johnny Cash and performed by his daughter Rosanne (herself one of contemporary American music’s most remarkable and skilled performers), The List has a genealogy worthy of an Old Testament patriarch.
It is rare that an album transcends the need be merely reviewed and presents a story that deserves to be told in its own right. The List is such an album. When the existence of Johnny Cash’s list became public knowledge in 2006, the story behind its creation instantly became a legendary moment in American music history:
On a hot summer’s day in 1973, young Rosanne Cash was riding on a bus with her already legendary father, Johnny Cash, as he toured through the southern United States. On that particular day, father and daughter were talking about music. As the elder Cash kept referencing foundational songs of American country and roots music, Rosanne found herself repeating “I don’t know that one.”
Concerned that his daughter seemed unaware of her own musical heritage, Johnny Cash took up pencil and paper and spent the rest of the day preparing a truly remarkable document in American musical history, which he titled “100 Essential Country Songs” — a list of songs which the elder Cash considered vital for Rosanne to know in order to understand American music’s true origins. Seldom has a musical figure of Johnny Cash’s stature (and there are few of them) given us such an explicit window into his own musical consciousness and into what he saw as the fundamental genius of American music.
Cash says that, even then, she knew her father was giving her something very special. But it was not until she was much older that she appreciated exactly how special of a gift it was, both for herself and for American music in general.
“Even at the time, I was vaguely aware with the kind of cognizance that an 18-year old could have, that it was important. I thought, ‘Wow, this is good. This is a lot of information,’ I wouldn’t have saved the list all these years if I hadn’t had some idea of how important it was,” Cash explains. “Of course, my understanding of it now is greater and my understanding of its importance it is much greater.”
Indeed, it would be more than three decades before a combination of necessity and coincidence would bring the existence of the elder Cash’s list to the world’s attention and plant the seeds for this album.
In 2006, Rosanne Cash was working on the The Black Cadillac Show, a multimedia theatre piece accompanying the release of her album, Black Cadillac. Cash told the story of her father’s list in a film that was part of the show. She had though it would simply be an interesting little anecdote of musical history. Instead, the story set the public’s imagination on fire.
As Cash describes it, suddenly everyone had three questions for her: What about the list? Can I see the list? When are you going to record the songs on that list? And slowly, the idea of The List started taking on a life of its own in Cash’s mind. She was already performing “Sea of Heartbreak” as part of The Black Cadillac Show and said to herself, “Well, that’s one that should go on the record.”
Still, it would be another year before Cash herself really embraced the idea of an album based on her father’s list. Two developments in her personal life helped take “The List” from abstract idea to concrete project.
First, at the end of 2007, Cash underwent brain surgery for Chiari Malformation Type I. The episode inspired significant introspection and reflection on Cash’s part, “You think about your own mortality, about what’s really important — not only for myself, but in terms of what I want to impart to my children.”
Second, her own family began to take an interest in the idea. Cash’s daughter, Chelsea Crowell, a musician and songwriter in her own right, called Rosanne Cash and said, “Okay, Mom, where’s my list? [As a side note, Crowell’s first album, the eponymously titled Chelsea Crowell, hits stores in November.] Her husband also began talking seriously about doing an album based on her father’s list, suggesting that if Cash was going to do a cover album, the songs should be drawn from that list.
And so, the wheels for “The List” were set in motion.
ON THE RIGHT TRACKS
This first challenge, and one of the most important questions that had to be answered in producing “The List,” was how to narrow her father’s list of 100 songs into the dozen tracks that would appear on Rosanne Cash’s album.
Ultimately, the songs that were selected had to meet three criteria. The first was emotional resonance. Cash selected songs from the list that meant something to her and that she had already been singing to herself for years, like “Old Black Veil” and the Carter Family songs. Second, there was a scholarly criterion. Cash wanted all the songs on the album to have musical or historical significance and represent key figures in American music like Jimmie Rodgers or the Carter Family. Third, there were as artistic consideration. The songs selected had to be appropriate for Carter’s voice and for her supporting musicians.
Even then, selecting one album’s worth of songs from a list of 100 was a collaborative process. In addition to Cash and her husband (producer/guitarist John Leventhal), her manager and record label’s A&R team were all involved in discussions about which songs should appear on the album. However, Cash leaves no doubt about where the final decisions were made.
“Ultimately, it was John [Leventhal] and I alone in the studio with a computer and a guitar, doing research and saying, ‘Okay, yeah, definitely this one or that one.’”
From this process, a collection of 12 songs emerged (or 13, if you’re one of the lucky people with one of two special release versions). Cash describes the process as long and challenging, but also very enjoyable.
In all legends, points sometimes get missed or twisted. One common misconception about Johnny Cash’s list was a list of 100 most important country songs. Since Cash himself dubbed the list “100 Essential Country Songs” this perception is understandable. But, as Rosanne Cash explains, her father’s vision was broader than that, “My dad had this great understanding of the evolution of Southern music.” In addition to the many styles and traditions grouped under the umbrella of “country” Rosanne Cash says the list includes protest songs and historical pieces as well as blues and gospel. As an album, The List reflects much of that diversity.
Both in tone and content, a strong sense of melancholy, loss and tragedy permeates most of the tracks on “The List.” Cash says there are some more upbeat songs on her father’s original list, but she feels the selection of tracks included on the album is reflective of both daughter and father and the kinds of songs that were most meaningful to both artists, “As you know, my Dad had a deep melancholy streak in his own music, and I do as well. So, its not surprising that we both incline ourselves to these kinds of songs.”
Plus, Cash observes, “It’s not like Appalachian music and Southern blues and gospel are exactly full of cheerful little ditties.”
Even once a final track list for the album had been agreed upon, there were many songs that she wished could she could have included. “There were a lot — but one song in particular that broke my heart not to include was ‘I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry (written and recorded by Hank Williams, Sr.),’” she explains. Feeling that so many deserving songs were left out has Cash thinking seriously about a Volume II for The List. While there are as of yet no concrete plans for The List II, Cash has begun thinking about which songs would belong on such an album. And she has already started work on her own version of “I’m so Lonesome.”
ROSANNE CASH AND FRIENDS
Liberally sprinkled throughout the tracks on “The List” are duets with a range of talented artists, including Wilco front-man Jeff Tweedy, singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, gravelly-voiced rocker-poet Bruce Springsteen and musical Renaissance man Elvis Costello.
Like the track list itself, the featured artists on “The List” were chosen carefully. Serious thought was given to finding artists whose sound and style would match a particular song as well as matching Rosanne Cash’s own distinctive vocalizations.
While Cash expected great things from each of the duets, the results surpassed her expectations. “I was happily surprised with all four of them.” And she has high praise for her fellow artists. She raves about Jeff Tweedy’s meticulousness and careful attention to inflection.
Of her friend and previous musical collaborator, Elvis Costello, Cash praises his hard work and his love of music. She also believes their duet on the Guy Mitchell classic “Heartaches by the Number” may show fans a side of Costello with which they may not be familiar. “This wasn’t a song he had to learn, he already knew ‘Heartaches by the Number,’” she explains, “I think people will be surprised by how deeply versed he is in American roots music and country music.”
For Cash, Springsteen was the biggest wildcard, “I knew [Springsteen] would be great for ‘Sea of Heartbreak’ and he has this deep, romantic quality in his voice — but I didn’t realize what a great harmony singer he is.”
Additionally, there are two special editions of The List available. As available through iTunes, the album contains a bonus 13th track featuring a duet between Rosanne Cash and alt-country Neko Case on the Porter Wagoner classic “Satisfied Mind.” The version available through Barnes and Noble includes a rendition of Willie Nelson’s “Sweet Memories” performed by Cash and singer/mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile.
Cash describes the special iTunes rendition of “Satisfied Mind” as “really, really lovely.”
FATHER’S LIST, DAUGHTER’S SONGS
Anyone who thinks of this album as only a collection of covers of songs picked by Johnny Cash is missing the real genius of The List. Make no mistake, this is a Rosanne Cash album, and she brings both passion and vision to every song on the album.
Just as it is a mistake to think of Johnny Cash’s list as only a list of country music, it is mistake to think this album as only a country album. Throughout her career, Cash has displayed versatile and sophisticated aesthetic sensibilities. Combined with her impressive knowledge of American music history, this gives The List a sound and feel that is as much Manhattan coffeehouse as it is Southern honky-tonk or Music City studio session.
The List is one of those rare discs on which there are no weak tracks. Nothing here was phoned-in or added as filler. The artist has an emotional investment in each of the twelve tracks, and that is reflected in the quality and intensity of the music. That having been said, some tracks on the album are extraordinary standouts.
One of the most powerful songs on the album is unquestionably “Motherless Children,” the timeless folk tune that has been recorded by everyone from the Louvin Brothers to Eric Clapton. Cash’s interpretation is unique, but clearly more akin to the almost forgotten version by Blind Willie Johnson than cuts by more contemporary artists. Under Cash, “Motherless Children” becomes a haunting traditional blues flavored with mournful Appalachian harmonies.
“Miss the Mississippi and You” is a country standard that has been embraced by everyone from Jimmie Rodgers, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris and Chrystal Gale to Arlo Guthrie and Bob Dylan. On The List “Miss the Mississippi” emerges as a slow, swank Western swing number. This track also contains some of the album’s best instrumentation, showcasing John Leventhal’s formidable talents on guitar.
Equal parts melody and melancholy, Cash’s “Long Black Veil” is unforgettable. While the song is strongly associated with her father, who scored a major hit with his 1965 version, “Veil” was originally a Lefty Frizzell number. In her own interpretation of the “Veil” Cash seems to draw inspiration form both versions.
“Sea of Heartbreak,” the Cash/Springsteen duet that so pleasantly surprised Cash, succeeds spectacularly in blending two of the most distinctive and bewitching voices in American music.
Other very strong tracks on The List include Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings” (featuring excellent, if understated, supporting instrumentation) and the duet version of “Heartaches by the Number” as well as an emotional rendition of the Carter Family classic, “Under the Weeping Willow Tree.”
In addition to the song’s origins and Cash’s own musical talents, one of the foundations for The List’s success is the high quality of its instrumentation. Led by guitarist/producer Leventhal, the roster of instrumental musicians supporting Cash consistently and confidently delivers beautiful performances in the multiple genres tackled by this album.
Being queried on which of an album’s tracts are his or her favorite is a difficult question for any artist – he or she has put their time and energy into every song on an album. This interviewer upped the ante by asking Cash which tracks she thought were most worthy for being included on someone else’s future list. After pausing for reflection, she concluded there were several songs she would pick – for entirely different reasons.
In preparing her version of “Motherless Children,” Cash looked at all the many different versions (often with varying lyrics) that had been done in the past. Then, using these as a base, she built her own version — keeping true to the song’s spirit while also adding a definite narrative arc that is absent in many previous versions. “I really feel like we almost did a new definitive version,” she says.
“Take these Chains from My Heart” is another track of which Cash is proud. “After he heard the full album, I got a letter from Elvis Costello,” she explains. “He told me, to him, there had really on been two versions of this song – but now there were three.”
This interviewer also took the risk of treading on personal ground by asking Cash which of her songs on “The List” her father would have enjoyed the most. Cash thinks either “Long Black Veil” or the Carter Family song, adding “Those were so special to him. I kept thinking of my dad when I was recording ‘Long Black Veil’ and thinking ‘Oh, my god, if he heard me singling this, he wouldn’t leave it alone. He would love it so much.”
In case you’re curious, for now, the full contents of Johnny’s Cash’s original list remain a secret. It may be a bit of musical history, passed from one of America’s great artists to another. But it is also a gift from a father to his daughter, something profoundly personal and emotional. It’s not something Rosanne Cash feels comfortable sharing with the world, at least not yet.
The List is currently in the middle of a full-scale media blitz, scheduled to last through December. But look for a tour in support of the album to occur around spring 2010.
Rosanne Cash has already enjoyed an extraordinary career, in which The List is merely the latest link. She has earned herself a distinct place in the history of American music. Her children are growing up and one of them is getting ready to launch her own first album. But Cash shows no signs of slowing down — if anything, her creative pace seems to be increasing. She has written a memoir that is scheduled to come out next year. There is already volume two of The List to consider. A project with Billy Bragg and Joe Henry has been on her mind for awhile. She is excited about the box set of Civil War songs she has just ordered and, with her love for historical music, she wonders if there is a project for her in there somewhere.
“It is interesting how, as you get older, there’s this kind of urgency about the things you’re passionate about,” Cash observes, “I’m feeling that a lot right now.” That might even be an understatement.
The album “The List” by Rosanne Cash and produced by Manhattan Records is available now.