Legacy in a list
IAs teenagers, most of us felt that the music our parents listened to simply wasn’t cool. Then again, most of us didn’t have one of the giants of American music— and for many people, the epitome of cool — for a father.
As the story goes, Rosanne Cash was 18 when her father, Johnny Cash, noticed that she was obsessed with the Beatles but didn’t know much about the country music that ran through her blood. So he made her a list of the “100 Essential Country Songs” — though it ran the gamut from folk to blues to rockabilly— and gave it to her as a crash course in American music.
When she established her own career in the 1970s and 1980s, Cash never rode on the long, black coattails of her father. In fact, she went out of her way to make sure that no one could accuse her of nepotism by polishing her songwriting, penning songs in genres other than country, moving to New York City, and downplaying her lineage wherever possible. Nonetheless, if you’re an aspiring musician and Johnny Cash offers you what he feels are the major signposts throughout American music, you tend to listen. The list helped Cash develop a love for Americana that has informed her hit-filled, awardwinning, three-decade career as a songwriter and performer.
So when she finally decided to record her first album of covers, it seemed a natural decision to tackle songs from the list. The 2009 album— featuring guests such as Bruce Springsteen, RufusWainwright, andWilco’s Jeff Tweedy— helped cap a decade full of highs and lows. In 2003, her father and her stepmother, June Carter Cash, died. Her mother, Vivian Distin, followed in 2005. In 2007, Cash underwent brain surgery for a benign condition. This year brought The List, and her daughter Chelsea Crowell (from her first marriage, to songwriter Rodney Crowell) continued her family’s musical tradition with her own debut album.
Cash brings the tour for The List to the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Sunday, Jan. 10. She took time out from the holiday hustle and bustle to speak with Pasatiempo from her Manhattan home. Pasatiempo: Why did you feel that now was the right time to undertake The List? Rosanne Cash: For a lot of reasons. After Black Cadillac [her 2006 record, influenced by the deaths of her parents and stepmother], I wanted to do a covers record. I wanted to give myself a break, emotionally and lyrically. I talked about the list a little bit in the [promotional tour for] Black Cadillac ... and people were coming up to me and saying, “What about the list?” I still resisted the idea. It didn’t make sense to me to do the list after all these years of trying to
carve out my own spot and not exploit my dad in any way. I thought it would be perceived as using him in some way. And finally my husband [producer John Leventhal] said, “If you’re going to do a covers record, the only covers record to do is the list.” I had just had a serious illness, and I was thinking about what my parents have left me and what I want to leave my kids, and it just hit me how important it was to me to step into the legacy of these songs. Pasa: It’s about your dad, and it’s not about your dad at the same time. Cash: It’s not about him, right. I thought people would perceive it that way, but it’s not. It’s not like I’m doing covers of “Ring of Fire” or “Walk the Line.” It’s more like a secret he passed on. Pasa: What did you learn from touring with your father as a teenager that you’ve brought to your own live performance? Cash: What I learned is that he had this unique combination of wanting to please people and not caring what they thought. Do you know what I mean? That’s a hard trick to pull off. Either you’re a people pleaser or you’re not. He wasn’t a people pleaser, yet he wanted to connect with them and entertain them. And also, he was his best self onstage. Everything got worked out. It realigned him. He could be so far off, in pain or in some other world, and being onstage was such a singular experience for him that it put him back in his body. Now, I don’t know that I brought that consciously to my own performance, but I have similar experiences. Pasa: Did you take naturally to performing in front of an audience? Cash: No. I didn’t, no. I wasn’t interested. I was interested in being a songwriter. I didn’t get it. I kind of thought, Well, my dad should be onstage because there’s really nobody like him and he has a lot to bring to live performance. And I thought, That’s not me. Why should I be onstage? I don’t need that much attention. And I didn’t necessarily think I had anything unique to bring to performance. Well, you know, it’s like the Malcolm Gladwell book [ Outliers: The Story of Success]: after you do something for 10,000 hours, you’re kind of an expert at it. I think I’m approaching my 10,000th hour! And I enjoy it!
That was also something that, looking at my own mortality, changed for me— being able to be in the moment more and really enjoying the unique chemistry of an audience and live performance and the temporary nature of it. It’s like a sand painting. Pasa: A song like “Sea of Heartbreak” has been done so many times, and pretty much every version is great. Is that freeing for you, knowing that you can’t really damage the song? Cash: Well, I don’t agree. I think you can damage the song. You can mess with the melody enough that you don’t keep the integrity of what the songwriter intended. And some people do do that. And “Sea of Heartbreak,” for instance, is a great metaphor, and that metaphor is extended throughout the entire song, and that’s a really hard trick to pull off without it becoming ironic. You could make the arrangement ironic and ruin the metaphor. I felt some weight of responsibility about this. Pasa: Were there any songs you were intimidated by? Cash: I was intimidated by two of them: “Girl From the North Country” and “She’s Got You.” Pasa: I would have guessed “She’s Got You,” because Patsy Cline’s vocals are so— Cash: — iconic. Yes. That’s why, because I knew that record really well, I knew that vocal really well, and it was intimidating. It was like singing “Respect” or something, you know? It was like trying to do Aretha. But John kept pushing. He kept saying, “You were born to sing this.” And then once I got inside the song, then it was just a pleasure. You can see why it’s on the list, why it’s such a great song, why it still works even though it’s kind of a period piece.
And “Girl From the North Country” was intimidating for a totally different reason. Because my dad and Bob’s version [on Bob Dylan’s 1969 album Nashville Skyline] was such a watershed moment. Pasa: Can you describe what led you to arrange “Bury Me Under theWeepingWillow” in that slow, sorrowful fashion? Cash: I didn’t want to overlook how sad the lyrics actually are. There’s a danger of being maudlin. That song also is such a period piece, and nobody talks like that anymore. You have to say it with some sort of authenticity—“bury me under the weeping willow” — or else it becomes ridiculous and maudlin. But I was thinking about Helen Carter and how she taught me these songs. It was an emotional experience. I felt really connected to Helen. She taught me all the Carter Family songs in a way that she wanted me to embody them, in a way that I could do them authentically. Pasa: If you could update the list for your daughter, what would you add to it? Cash: I’ve thought so much about that, because she actually asked me for a list. There would be some overlap with my dad’s list, but you know, I’d have to include some Neil Young, some Stones and some Beatles and some Springsteen. ◀