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Rosanne Cash's List Goes From Legend To Reality
"The List" has long been on Rosanne Cash's own list of things to do in her life.
The List is a docket of 100 essential country songs that the late Johnny Cash gave his daughter when she was 18 and setting out on her own recording career. It became a legend, and something of a myth, when Cash mentioned it to interviewers, and after her father's death in 2003 it seemed inevitable that Cash would begin to tuck into those songs herself -- which she finally did last year, recording a dozen of them for her latest album, "The List."
"The truth is I didn't want to share the list," explains Cash, 54, the eldest child of Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian. "So much of my dad has been co-opted, and Johnny Cash didn't give me the list -- my [i]dad[/i] gave me the list, and I want to keep it for myself. I don't want to put it on the Internet and let everyone know what was on it or anything like that.
"I was still having a knee-jerk reaction to doing anything that seemed to trade so heavily on my father."
It was her husband, producer John Leventhal, who ultimately convinced Cash to take on "The List" as a recording project. "He pointed out that, 'This is not your dad's list. This is [i]your[/i] list. He gave it to you. You can own this.'
"I did a little reflection," adds Cash, who was previously married to singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, and said, 'Not only can I own it, but I [i]should[/i] own it.' It's so important. I'm past the age of having a chip on my shoulder about this. It's not gracious anymore. And my own daughter (Chelsea Crowell) had her first record come out (in 2009). It's part of an ongoing story. It would be just awful to reject this."
Timing was also a factor in making "The List" a reality. Reeling from the deaths of her father and stepmother June Carter Cash, both in 2003, and her mother's passing in 2005, Cash was diagnosed in 2007 with Chiari 1 malformation, a rare benign condition that required brain surgery and put her musical career on what was then expected to be indefinite hold.
"The first year after the surgery was really difficult," reports Cash, who's still undergoing physical therapy. "I was incredibly sensitive to sound; I didn't want to hear a lot of music with lyrics. I could listen to classical...but I didn't want to hear anybody talking. That came back slowly, so I've been obsessively listening to songwriters -- like maybe I missed something!"
Cash did have a desire to record again as quickly as she could and figured a covers album would be easiest. "And as (Leventhal) said," she notes, "the only covers record to make was from the list." Choosing the songs, she says, was "the most fun for us;" with Johnny Cash biographer Michael Streissguth alongside to chronicle the process for the companion book "Always Been There: Rosanne Cash, The List and the Spirit of Southern Music," she and Leventhal pored through their options to come up with the 12 songs for the album.
"It was kind of equal parts scholarly and intuitive," Cash says of the album, which peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard country chart and No. 22 on the Billboard 200. "These songs are all on the list for a reason. They're all truly great songs that can take a lot of different interpretations and deserve a lot of interpretations." And because of that, she adds, she and Leventhal were very careful about the way her versions of the songs -- which range from the public domain standard "Motherless Children" to Bob Dylan's "Girl From the North Country," "Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings" and songs by Hank Snow, Harlan Howard, the Carter Family and more -- were arranged.
"There's no point in making carbon copies of the originals," Cash explains. "I don't think if I copied Ray Charles' version of (Hank Williams') 'Take These Chains From My Heart' I was going to make it better. It had to be me in it or there would not be a point to doing them."
Cash got an affirming thumbs-up from Elvis Costello -- who guests on "The List" along with Bruce Springsteen, Rufus Wainwright and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy -- after he heard the album. "Elvis sent me an e.mail," she recalls, "that said, 'For me, there were only two version of 'Take These Chains...' Now there are three.' When I read that I wept, 'cause that's exactly what I was going for. To think one of my interpretations of these songs might stand in the canon alongside other interpretations is overwhelming."
But Cash says her goal was artistic expression rather than public service.
"I didn't approach it that way -- but it is a byproduct," she notes. "I thought it would be kind of deathly to approach it like proselytizing -- 'I'm going to teach you this!' But I have had people come out to me. I've had, 'Girlfriend, did you write 'Sea of Heartbreak?' 'Are you kidding?!' And it's not just young people. It's all generations. It's people my age as well.
"But even if they don't know them, they kind of recognize them. These songs are in the DNA, in the American cultural experience that even if you never actually listened to them, you kind of know them anyway."
Cash will be spending part of 2010 on the road to promote "The List," but she says she and Leventhal are already hatching plans for a second volume, which will include a version of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" that they recorded but didn't make the current album, which Cash says "kind of broke my heart."
Cash -- who's planning to publish an autobiography this year and has started writing new songs as well -- also promises that "at the right time I'll do the right thing and archive (the list) properly," possibly by giving it to the Country Music Hall of Fame or the Smithsonian Institute. "After it stops being this wonderful thing my dad gave to me, it needs to move on to be this wonderful thing that's now part of the American musical archive," she says.
"So at some point I'll do the right thing -- but not yet."
The Ark's 33rd Ann Arbor Folk Festival takes place at 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Jan. 29-30) at Hill Auditorium, 825 N. University Ave. on the U-M campus, Ann Arbor. Tonight's lineup includes Iron And Wine, Jay Farrar & Benjamin Gibbard, Band of Heathens, Hoots & Hellmouth, Po' Girl, Jer Coons and Nervous But Excited. Saturday's show features Rosanne Cash, Richie Havens, Doc Watson, Raul Malo, Hot Club of Cowtown and Enter the Haggis. Patty Larkin emcees both nights. Tickets are $45 and $30 per night, $80 and $50 for both. Call (734) 761-1451 or visit www.theark.org.
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