Rosanne Cash is the flipside of flippant — she takes her time exploring the recesses in the deep end of her experience and her emotions. Any barbs in her lyrics are, as often as not, used to open a vein. More often than not, the blood is hers.
Two of Cash’s best records, “Interiors” and “The Wheel,” and parts of her most commercially successful disc, “Kings Record Shop,” deal with the slow but relentless dissolution of her marriage to her producer and songwriting peer, Rodney Crowell. More recently, “Black Cadillac,” from 2006, eloquently copes with the deaths of her father, the Man In Black, Johnny Cash; her mother, Vivian Liberto Cash Distin; and her stepmother, June Carter Cash, within a two-year period. In retrospect, what’s striking about these records is the triumph of Cash’s songwriting craft, the pruning of excessive sentimentality, allowing the acidic details, unpleasant truths, and poignant realizations just enough shade to grow in the memory.
Cash’s latest, “The List,” released last fall, engages her desire for emotional resonance while giving her muse a bit of a breather. The title refers to something given to her by her famous father back in 1973, when Rosanne was a teenager enamored of SoCal rock like Ronstadt and the Eagles. As a counterbalance, he decided to compile what he called the “100 essential country songs,” and advised her to learn them to enhance her life’s education.
Cash describes the list as “my father’s intuitive understanding of each critical juncture in the evolution of country music” up through 1973. That includes Appalachian folk, gospel, Southern blues; the music of Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams.
“I looked to that list as a standard of excellence, and to remind myself of the tradition from which I come. This album enables me to validate the connection to my heritage … .” Cash continues. Not that she doesn’t provide her own delicious furtherance of that tradition, like inviting in Rufus Wainwright to help her cover Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings.”
Johhny’s 100-song list was pared to Rosanne’s 12-song, “The List.” Along with “Silver Wings,” it includes classics like Hedy West’s “500 Miles” and Jimmie Rodgers’ “Miss the Mississippi and You,” and a song or two with an explicit Johnny Cash connection, such as Bob Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country,” that had a Dylan-Johnny Cash vocal duet in its original rendition.
By now, Rosanne has her own list of stellar numbers — she was named Billboard’s Top Singles Artist in 1988, after all. Don’t be surprised if “Runaway Train,” “Seven Year Ache,” and now “Black Cadillac” find their way into the set. There won’t be any drop off in quality from the classics Johnny chose.
Here is Rosanne performing one of the songs from “The List,” the Carter Family’s “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow,” with her husband, John Leventhal, at a recent Haiti benefit.
Here is a recent rendition of “Seven Year Ache” performed on Elvis Costello’s television show, “Spectacle.”
Here is Rosanne’s MySpace page, which contains a healthy sampling of songs from “The List,” including the 2010 Grammy-nominated “Sea of Heartbreak” with Bruce Springsteen.