november 2009

Roseanne Cash
Rosanne Cash: ‘It moves me deeply that he took the time to do it this and that it’s really him, it’s his essence. He was saying, 'This is my DNA.''

He Was Saying, ‘This Is My DNA’

Rosanne Cash Completes Her Education On The List

By David McGee

In her 35 years of recording Rosanne Cash has never quite put together an album like The List. For one, the dozen songs were selected by her father, one Johnny Cash, way back in 1973 when Ms. Cash was but a lass of 18, fresh out of high school and joining his touring troupe. For another, working again with her producer/husband John Leventhal (isn't it about time he be recognized as one of the great contemporary producers, too? The man's taste and style are both distinctive and impeccable, and he works from a stylistic palette comprised of all the colors of traditional American music), she has produced something on the order of a cabaret or art-song album, minus any of the numbing, arch ennui too many artists bring to such endeavors; no, The List hums with soul, deeply felt and near palpable in Cash's personal investment in her performances. But, save for some fleeting pyrotechnics in a simmering reading of the gospel chestnut, "Motherless Children," the album tilts towards the internal, the introspective, the sensitive, and the intimate. It's a quietly devastating, beautifully but sparingly embroidered exploration of where this thoroughly contemporary, urbanized woman—raised in Southern California, long a New York City resident—finds her place in songs with profound rural roots musically, sociologically and philosophically. In the end, The List is its own circle of life, telling us anew of the links binding us all as sentient human beings with core, shared values and certainly common afflictions of the heart and soul.

About those songs—"Take These Chains From My Heart," "She's Got You," "Heartaches By the Number," "Long Black Veil," "Miss the Mississippi and You," "Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow," "Sea of Heartbreak," "I'm Movin' On," "500 Miles," "Girl From the North Country," "Silver Wings"—it was indeed Johnny Cash who suggested them, so to speak, when his daughter was newly graduated from high school and beginning her professional career as a member of his road show. How he did so is well documented by now: he wrote out a list of 100 fundamental folk and country songs he thought were essential for her musical education. In fact, she remembers him spending a day in pensive thought compiling the list in the back of the tour bus.

"I'd go to the back of the bus, he'd still be working on it," she recalled recently while lounging in a conference room at EMI Records in Manhattan. "I'd go to the front, a little time would pass, I'd go back and he'd still be sitting there, thinking about this list."

At the end of the day he handed it to her. "This is your education," he said. It was titled "100 Essential Country Songs."

Rosanne Cash on The List

Contrary to an early, erroneous report that the father feared his daughter was going off the deep end listening to too much contemporary music, Ms. Cash says quite the opposite was the case.

"You know, he had a really wide and deep love of all kinds of music himself. So he wasn't afraid of anything I was listening to. He was concerned that there were things I didn't listen to, things I didn't have in my vocabulary. He loved that I loved the Beatles and Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young, everything else, but he was afraid I didn't know Woody Guthrie, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Snow."

After that, however, the list went on a journey not quite on a par with the famous lock of Beethoven's hair that was passed around from family to family in Germany and Poland (before eventually finding sanctuary in the U.S.) to keep it out of Nazi hands during WWII, but nonetheless epic in its own way. Turns out it never left Ms. Cash's ownership, but its survival borders on the surprising, if not the miraculous.

"I moved it from a box of letters and memorabilia and stuff I'd saved since childhood," she says. "I'm a bit of a pack rat—I still have some of my grade school reports. So I moved it. It's shocking to me that it didn't get lost over the years. Then I found it again in 2005, and had forgotten about it. Didn't remember it; it just went with my box of stuff. But even then I thought, Oh, I remember this, and kind of remembered my dad doing it. Although someone told me the other day that I mentioned it in an interview in 1987, so I must have remembered it, forgot about it, remembered it, forgot about it. Anyway, in 2005 I saw it and thought I'd write about it for the Black Cadillac show."

Thus is the scene set for the pentimento of The List—the sketches beneath the finished work that offer such fascinating clues about the artist's original intent. The List is another great Rosanne Cash album, but its lineage is one of calamity: 2004's The Rules of Travel followed her losing her voice temporarily; 2007's Black Cadillac appeared in the wake of the devastating losses of her mother, father and stepmother in quick succession; and the new album emerges almost two years to the day after she suffered an affliction that required brain surgery after year she described in her New York Times blog of April 5, 2008 as “a blur of pain.” One wonders what calamity will befall her next to produce another towering work. It's a measure of how far she's come that she can laugh at this freaky timeline.

"Okay, I can see how you can look at it that way," she says after feigning fright. "I have a little bit of a different perspective. Well, The List is not after great loss to me. It's actually pulling in the things that I kept, I saved, I found—recovery in the real sense and in the metaphorical sense. I recovered from brain surgery, recovered this list...and it's an album of covers! (Laughs) I'm trying to put a good spin on this, because you're scaring me!"

But in fact Black Cadillac was an experience both exhilarating and enervating, as she put together a multi-media journey through her own experience as a Cash family member, in the wake of her own annus horribilis. As proud as she is of Black Cadillac, she acknowledges an emotional toll she paid in its public performance. She describes the songs—"my songs"—as being "so dense emotionally" as to inspire in her a territorial feeling "about the arrangements and the sonics, and I really did put myself in the back room of the songs as an interpreter. I didn’t want to interpret them, I wanted to lay out the songs themselves.”

The Black Cadillac experience extended to Ms. Cash’s participation in Mark O’Connor’s brilliant interpretation of Johnny Cash’s music in his Poets & Prophets composition (see the Mark O’Connor cover story in, January 2009 for more). The two did several shows together in which O’Connor’s music was prologue for Ms. Cash’s Black Cadillac songs, followed by the two of them collaborating on a pair of O’Connor-arranged songs by Ms. Cash to top off the evening. Her respect and admiration for O’Connor seems boundless—“He’s incredible, really gifted, like genius gifted”—and she describes Poets & Prophets as “beautiful. In a lot of ways it was a more direct tribute than Black Cadillac was, because Black Cadillac was about my terrain of loss and ancestry and past and future, and Poets & Prophets was really a direct tribute.” But the shows were emotionally taxing: “It’s fun to do, but after we did one of those shows I slept for eighteen hours that weekend. It took a lot out of me.”

So to the question of why she returned with an album of covers instead of more original songs, she says without hesitation: “Because I needed a break from Black Cadillac. That was one discussion—following up those lyrics, those songs, what are you going to do? And I had never done a whole covers record. Then everybody started talking about The List because it was in the narrative for the Black Cadillac show. And at first I went, ‘No, no, no, no.’ Then I went, ‘Yeah!’ And of course it was a dream project for John. He was dying to do it.”

Now, in the matter of covers, Ms. Cash has dropped hints of having at least some interest in traveling such a route. In a 2004 interview with this reporter, she said before Rules of Travel became what it became, she was keen on doing a covers album, only to be talked out of it by her husband/producer. So all these years later…

“John’s going, ‘You need to do a covers album.’ Right.”

Also, at a show at New York City’s Allen Room, on the Rules of Travel tour, she admitted onstage to being a closet Broadway show tunes addict, and began including in her sets a wonderful, wistful version of Lerner & Lowe’s “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” and no one dared take her to task for singing “lov-ely” instead of “lover-ly,” so beautifully was it realized in her interpretation. And, truth be told, she has quite a track record as an interpreter: only Emmylou Harris, with “For No One,” beat her to the punch as a country artist covering Beatles songs (not counting Chet Atkins’s Beatles instrumentals album), and there was a period when she was John Hiatt’s premier interpreter and largely responsible for him gaining so much credibility with the country audience.

The questions arises anyway, though, as to how you take material acknowledged as certifiable monuments—by Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Jimmie Rodgers, Don Gibson, Patsy Cline, Bob Dylan, Hank Snow, et al.—and find your way into them. The album is so remarkable in that if you weren't aware Ms. Cash had to know these songs inside out before she ever recorded them, you would think she and Leventhal were a pair of tabula rasas who happened to stumble upon some weathered, parched sheet music somewhere along the way and approached the repertoire as if it had never before been heard by anyone. The List is as remarkable for its unselfconscious readings as it is for its largely minimalist, highly evocative settings, both artist and producer putting their individual stamps on the tunes in rendering them brand new heartaches.

“We talked about this kind of academically at first,” she explains of the process she and Leventhal went through to arrive at the proper approach. “Then once you get in the studio, you know, it’s different. John and I talked that I couldn’t just put on an outfit like I’m a country singer and I’m going to do country covers of these songs. I had to bring the fact that I’m a New Yorker, I was raised in southern California, that I’ve spent thirty-five years of my life as a songwriter, that I’ve made a hybrid blend of music my entire adult life. And also, John’s sensibilities—his facility with jazz and pop and blues—had to be in there. So all of that we brought into this deep love and respect for these songs. And we didn’t want to do carbon copies, and at the same time we didn’t want to do cheap tricks on them. So finding the essential center of each of those songs, to find the door and go into the center of them, it took me longer for songs like ‘She’s Got You’ and ‘Take These Chains’ and ‘Heartaches By the Number,’ because those were really iconic records to me, particularly the Patsy Cline record—that was really difficult for me to get rid of. I was scared to do ‘She’s Got You,’ and John kept saying, ‘You have to do it. You were born to sing this song. So gather a little confidence.’ And then once I started singing it I go, ‘Wow, this is why it’s on The List. This is such a great song.’

So you learn more about it from singing it.

“Absolutely. I learned why they’re on The List. “’She’s Got You’ is perfectly constructed. ‘Heartaches By the Number’ is also perfectly constructed. It’s a little regimented for my taste, which is why we brought Elvis Costello in on it. But ‘Take These Chains,’ oh, my God—that was a little intimidating because of the Ray Charles version, not because of the Hank Williams version. I’m of the generation that heard the Ray Charles version when I was a kid. But I have to say that after Elvis heard the record, he wrote me an email and said, ‘For me there were only ever two versions of ‘Take These Chains.’ Now there are three.’ I started to cry; that meant so much to me. So it was a matter of respect and trying to be original.”

Patsy Cline, ‘She’s Got You,’ covered by Rosanne Cash on The List. This performance was filmed for the Pet Milk Grand Ole Opry show in 1962. ‘‘She’s Got You’ is perfectly constructed,’ says Rosanne.

Then there was the issue of winnowing down the “100 Essential” songs from dad’s list to the dozen to be included on the album. Again, the final selection reflects Ms. Cash’s sensibility and emotional attachments tempered by John Leventhal’s conceptual vision for the project.

“I started with the ones I felt closest to,” she explains. “I’d been singing ‘Silver Wings’ to myself for thirty years. Did I ever think I would record ‘Silver Wings’? So that was exciting, ‘Oh my God! I get to record ‘Silver Wings’?’ The idea had never occurred to me. ‘Long Black Veil’ was kind of the center—I knew I couldn’t even do a record like this without ‘Long Black Veil.’ To me ‘Long Black Veil’ is what is most essential about country music—it has everything in it that country music is defined by. That cinematic quality, the narrative, the murder ballad, the chord changes, all that. And then, John also brought a more scholarly approach to it. He wanted it balanced not so much thematically as by genre. Jimmie Rodgers had to be represented, because he was so important to my dad. Southern gospel had to be represented—we thought about which song it would be and we chose ‘Motherless Children.’ Carter Family had to be represented. So that kind of balance had to take place. Then we wanted something that was newer—‘Motherless Children’ and “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow” are really old, really old. So we chose ‘Girl From the North Country.’”

Not coincidentally, both “Long Black Veil”—that album centerpiece—and “Girl From the North Country”—representative of the newer breed of country song—are occasions for another aural evocation of Ms. Cash’s (and Mr. Leventhal’s, it should be noted) musical Hitchockian Impulse to reference her past in a new number. She did it on Rules of Travel, by slipping a quote from one of her previous hits, “Hold On,” into “Closer Than I Appear.” On The List, the specter of the younger Rosanne materializes immediately in “Long Black Veil,” when Leventhal kicks it off by reprising the recurring, signature guitar lick played by Randy Scruggs on “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” a Johnny Cash tune from Ms. Cash’s 1987 album, King’s Record Shop (the cover photo shows her standing in front of a store called King’s Record Shop, and in the window is her first Columbia album, Seven Year Ache, which is the first instance of her Hitchcockian Impulse to surface in public). Later, as “Girl From the North Country” is fading out, listen close and you’ll hear the “Tennessee Flat Top Box” lick reappear for one fleeting moment before quiet sets in.

Caught in the act, Ms. Cash fesses up. It was intentional, she says. “It’s the only song that has even a subtle homage to my dad, right? Because my dad recorded that song, so somewhere there had to be that, not in any obvious, stupid tribute way, but musically there had to be that. So it had to somehow nod to my career, thirty-plus years. That’s John; he likes to make these musical comments, and his inclination is to say it musically rather than in words. That was totally his idea, and I thought it was a brilliant idea.”

Rosanne Cash, ‘Tennessee Flat Top Box,’ with John Leventhal on the Telecaster, playing the recurring lick he plays on ‘Long Black Veil’ on The List: ‘It’s the only song on the album that has even a subtle homage to my dad,’ Rosanne notes.

Beyond that, “Tennessee Flat Top Box” was the first Johnny Cash song his daughter ever recorded, even though at the time she cut it she didn’t realize it was a J.R. Cash original. “Well, I thought it was Public Domain! I knew that he had recorded it, of course, I knew his records. But I didn’t know he wrote it. I thought, That song is as old as the hills! (laughs) But that makes sense: you hear a song from birth and you think, Well, that’s always been around.”

Speaking of being around, her father is no longer, and in the years since his passing, Ms. Cash has been ever more diligent about acting the steward of his legacy. Upon finishing Poets & Prophets, Mark O’Connor called on her to let her know about it, received an enthusiastic response, and a fruitful collaboration ensued. Less charitably, the hapless country gasbag John Rich took the stage this past fall at a John McCain rally and boasted to the crowd that if Johnny Cash were alive he would vote for John McCain. Ms. Cash responded immediately ( with a searing note to, saying in part: “It is appalling to me that people still want to invoke my father’s name, five years after his death, to ascribe beliefs, ideals, values and loyalties to him that cannot possibly be determined and to try to further their own agendas by doing so.” That incident has proven to be a crucible inspiring her to be mindful of the manner in which others, especially those who never knew Johnny Cash, attempt to capitalize on his enduring popularity and legendary stature in American history. Where she’s at now with it also has much to do with having raised a daughter who is on the eve of making her own debut as a solo artist, and thus the legacy of family history has focused Ms. Cash’s perspective both as the daughter of Johnny Cash and the mother of Chelsea Crowell.

“Well, my thinking on that has changed a lot since he died,” she says of her family activism. “I mean, I never even gave that a thought before he died, because he was around to guard his own life. Then in the first couple, three years there were so many attempts to draw me into what I found to be really appalling projects to trade on my dad in some way, really exploitative in some ways. And I said, ‘No. No. No. No.’ Then people sending me songs about my dad that they wanted me to sing, basically wanting me to use me and my emotions to convey something they felt about my father. ‘No. No. No.’ I had to say no so much that it became a default position. So now here it is, six years later, and I do feel very differently about it. Not to say that that thing with John Rich was a turning point, but I kind of came back out of the shadows at that moment to say, ‘This is wrong. You cannot appropriate his mind or his legacy.’ Not that I want to appropriate his thoughts or his mind in that way, either. I mean, I wouldn’t presume to say, ‘Well, my dad would have thought this.’ I don’t think that’s right.

“But the musical legacy? It’s my family. If I don’t step into it—The List is part of that—somebody else will, and it won’t be authentic. And my daughter has her first record coming out in November. So she deserves to have an intact legacy to step into later on. And that will be my dad and me and the Celtic ancestors, whatever’s in there.”

Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, ‘Long Black Veil’ (1987)

As for The List itself—the actual, handwritten list as opposed to the album—Ms. Cash sees a far deeper meaning to it now than she did at eighteen, when first it was presented to her. And this too is part of what she’s passing along to her offspring.

“I was excited when he gave it to me,” she recalls of the moment in question. “Even at eighteen I thought, This is good, this is important, I want to know these songs. I don’t think he would have made the list if he hadn’t sensed I was open to that. I was on the road with all of them, Helen Carter was teaching me the Carter Family songs in the dressing room every night. He could see I was getting really excited to learn ‘Banks of the Ohio’ and all of these Carter Family songs, Appalachian music. Not only that, I was hanging with my dad, and he wanted to give me something of myself, too. It was about musical genealogy as much as it was about musical education. I was open to it. Everybody says, ‘Oh, at eighteen you probably rolled your eyes.’ I didn’t. I really wanted to know.

“But I didn’t have the sense of the list that I have now. I mean I’ve spent 35 years as a songwriter now, going deeper and deeper and deeper into not only that music but all kinds. Now I see the cultural importance of it, just apart from me personally, and it moves me deeply that he took the time to do it this and that it’s really him, it’s his essence. He was saying, ‘This is my DNA.’”

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