Parents are always giving their kids lists of things to do, but when your father is Johnny Cash, the original Man in Black, the list leads you on an unforgettable musical journey.
On “The List,” Rosanne Cash tackles the songs on a sheet of paper that her father wrote out for her on the back of his tour bus in 1973 as a “template for excellence” that would form her musical vocabulary past her obsession with the Beatles. Her father would be proud, as is might be the most beautiful music in her career full of beautiful music.
“He realized that I lacked something essential about my own musical genealogy, and he made this list for me,” she explained in the pages of last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. “He would play the songs for me on his guitar, and I sought out the records in the years afterward.”
The Man in Black was also plugged into his Irishness, so taken in by the Emerald Isle that he went green and penned a whole album in celebration of Ireland that included the immortal “Forty Shades of Green” in the early sixties. His daughter continues that love of music by playing with Irish artists like Larry Kirwan and Black 47 from time to time, and with Celtic flourishes in her music.
Though the melodies sing from some of the venerable songwriters in Opryland, “The List” hardly sounds like a museum piece. Husband, producer and composer John Leventhal creates a taut musical bed that touches on elements of acoustic blues, folk and Celtic flourishes. A twangy guitar skates across these arrangements here as an acoustic slide guitar riff plays cleanup over there.
Cash begins with ''Miss the Mississippi and You,'' which the father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers, recorded in 1932. She ends with the Carter Family's ''Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow,'' a song which she tells The New York Times always reminds her of her step-aunt Helen Carter, who taught her the guitar.
There’s a playful pairing of Cash and Costello on the chestnut “Heartache by the Number,” and her duet with Bruce Springsteen, “Sea of Heartbreak,” is a stunning interplay of voices wringing every drop of lonesome from the words.
“How did I lose you/oh, where did I fail?/Why did you leave me/always to sail?” he sings on the Don Gibson classic. I always prefer The Boss when he is not shouting over a giant band, and this track finds him at his best.
Cash does kick it into country for Patsy Cline’s hit ''She's Got You'' and Bob Dylan’s ''Girl From the North Country,'' a composition that she says first intimidated her because she remembered her father singing it with Dylan on television.
“Patsy's version of ‘She's Got You’ was the only one that really gave me pause,” Cash says during an exclusive chat with IrishCentral’s sister publication the Irish Voice. “I had to do some psychological work to get her iconic vocal out of my head before I could sing my own version!”
We talked about records, 10-gallon hats and Taylor Swift. Here’s how it went:
Farragher: When we last spoke, you had just released “Black Cadillac.” The songs were your commentary on the deaths in your family. Do you see The List, a collection of songs from your father, as an extension of your last album and the grieving/completion process you undertook?
Cash: I don't think of “The List” as an extension of “Black Cadillac,” at least in a direct way, at all. I read a music writer said that I was “still grieving” by doing “The List,” which was very surprising to me. In fact, I see “The List” as a near artistic opposite to “Black Cadillac.” If “Black Cadillac” was about what was lost, “The List” is about what was found, what was saved, what was passed on.
Farragher: Are there any country artists out there today who you think would have made your dad's famous list? Any artists that YOU think should have been on that list that he omitted?
Cash: My dad put songs on the list, not artists. Most of the songs on the list were recorded by many different people. "Take These Chains" had equally definitive versions by both Hank Williams and Ray Charles, but it wasn't a particular version that made the list, it was the song itself.
So, I would look at songwriters from 1973 to the present to see who he might have added to the list, and as far as country songwriters, I would think that there would probably be a Townes Van Zandt song, a Guy Clark song, a Rodney Crowell song among others.
I have to also think that in the great continuum of American roots music, my dad would have included a Springsteen song or two. I certainly would have included all those songwriters, among others.
Farragher: Did you learn anything about recording or interpreting from your guest singers and if so, what? I must say the duet with Bruce is amazing. Your vocals fit so well together.
Cash: I've been a studio rat for over 30 years, so I didn't learn anything new about recording as such, but I did gain new and deeper respect for every one of these guest artists. As far as Bruce -- his vocal is so well-considered, so technically and emotionally perfect, so fine-tuned to sing with me, not just next to me, that if I ever doubted his greatness, all I have to do is listen to this and step back in awe once again.
Farragher: Production-wise, the arrangements certainly tip the hat to country music without putting the 10-gallon hat on entirely. It has a more singer-songwriter vibe. Was that a conscious effort on your part, or am I off base?
Cash: You are not off base at all. I could not put on a 10-gallon hat or a cowgirl skirt because that's not who I am. I wasn't doing a theater piece or trying on a character, I wanted to embody these songs with myself -- and I am a singer-songwriter. I also live in New York City, and grew up in Southern California. I also love jazz and classical and Celtic music and blues.
I couldn't just make a singular, straight country record. It wouldn't have been authentic. John was very cognizant of bringing all my resources and sensibilities into the arrangements.
Farragher: What do you think of the Carrie Underwood/Taylor Swift pretty blonde country movement at the moment? I personally am mixed. It seems a tad shallow but it is keeping the genre alive. Thoughts?
Cash: I think they're both adorable. However, I don't know a single thing about the music -- I couldn't name one song. I have seen each of them on television, once each, and I thought they both had great confidence and presence.
But all of popular culture is rife with pretty young things -- why should country music be any different if it's going to stay viable in the marketplace? I realize that is somewhat cynical and I wish no disrespect to the young women involved. I’m just making an observation.