Rosanne Cash's "The List" measures modern American folk music's sweetest marrow. The 54-year-old songwriter, who cherry-picked a dozen songs from essential recordings her legendary father detailed in 1973, charts history both directions. "We didn't want to make carbon copies," she says. "We had to honor the melody but find our own arrangement. We absolutely did not want to be ironic."
Cash performs this morning at Waterloo Records and headlines KGSR's 19th anniversary party tonight at the Texas Union Ballroom.
American-Statesman: Why did your father (Johnny Cash) give you this list?
Rosanne Cash:I think he felt an urgency to share the most important music that had informed him. He considered it to be his musical genealogy, and therefore mine. It's not that he didn't love pop and rock music himself, but he felt I was lacking a whole other dimension of understanding American music.
Is 'The List' about your family's legacy and tradition or the music's?
Probably both. I think at the time he gave it to me, I didn't consider myself a part of that legacy and tradition, because I was just naïve. I hadn't yet spent 35 years as a songwriter (laughs). Now I see it's both an American cultural tradition and it's also my family's tradition.
Storytelling clearly is central to these songs. Take 'Sea of Heartbreak.'
That was really the first song I started performing from "The List." I was performing it during the "Black Cadillac" tour. Obviously, the definitive version is Don Gibson's in 1961. I had always thought that Don Gibson wrote it, but during the research for this record I found out that it's a Brill Building song by Hal David and Paul Hampton.
It pulls off a really difficult trick, which is to take a metaphor and sustain it through the whole song without it becoming ironic. It uses it over and over — the lights in the harbor, the ship being rescued — and yet it retains that essential heartbreak.
How did Bruce Springsteen become involved?
We always knew that we wanted it to be a duet. When we finished recording the track, (Cash's husband and producer) John (Leventhal) and I started talking about who would be the perfect male voice.
What about the craft of songwriting do these songs reinforce?
(Recording) was very humbling. I really examined these songs inside and out to see why they were on the list. They're perfectly constructed and central to their own idiom.
You've said you regret not asking your father to expand the list. What do you suspect he would've added from 1973 until his death in 2003?
Yeah. I've thought a lot about that. The one that came to mind first was the George Jones song "He Stopped Loving Her Today." But, you know, he probably would've put some Springsteen and maybe a little Neil Young or another Dylan song. I wish to God that I had asked him.
Do you plan to pass on a similar list to your children?
Absolutely. My daughter asked me for it, and I've started compiling it. It would be a different list, though. I would have Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" and U2's "One" and the Beatles (laughs). But I would also have "Long Black Veil."
The story behind ...
Rosanne Cash tells the story behind recording 'Long Black Veil,' 'Motherless Children' and 'Girl from the North Country' from her 2009 album 'The List':
' "Long Black Veil" is from the tradition of Appalachian murder ballads, even though it was written in the 1950s. It's perfect in that way. It's cinematic, it's got chord changes that kind of break your heart and it's about integrity, not ratting out your friend. It's pretty amazing.
' "Motherless Children" is something so deeply rooted in the American Southern experience. It's been changed and recorded by so many different people. That was a whole different thing, finding a narrative arc in all those many, many verses that made sense for me.
'(My father's spirit) was there (while recording "The List"), particularly recording "Long Black Veil" and "Girl from the North Country." I really felt quite moved. I kept thinking, "Oh my god, if my dad saw that I was singing 'Long Black Veil' he would just faint with joy! I think it would've been monumental for him that I did this finally! After being a songwriter that wasn't rooted in that tradition so much, to embrace this so lovingly, it would've meant a lot to him.'
— Brian T. Atkinson]]