Legacy in a list

Pasatiempo - - Pop Cd Reviews -

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. ◀

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