Rosanne Cash Discusses The List
In October, Rosanne Cash will be releasing The List, her first record since 2006’s Black Cadillac. It’s also her first covers album, featuring tracks by Hank Williams, Harlan Howard, and other canonical country songwriters. The songs themselves come from a list of 100 essential country songs that Johnny Cash gave to his daughter—then primarily a fan of rock music—when she was 18.
As a fan of Rosanne Cash’s music, I jumped at the chance to talk with her about this new venture. We only had a few minutes to chat—as you’ll see, “Mrs. L.,” as she calls herself on her blog, is quite the busy lady—but Cash was extremely generous with her time and thoughts about her upcoming album and her family’s musical legacy. I hope you’ll enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed talking to her.
JULI THANKI: The driving force behind The List seems to be family, from the initial list your father made, the songs you picked, you working with your husband and daughter, and the blog you’ve set up. Was that your initial intent?
ROSANNE CASH: I guess it is about family; I wasn’t thinking about it that way as much as I was about tradition and legacy. My dad made this list for me when I was 18, and now that I’m recording the songs and sharing it with my own kids, there’s a continuum that I really love.
JT: Listening to The List, I was struck by how familiar it felt; though you’re not copying the original arrangements note for note, it just feels like I’ve been listening to the album my whole life.
RC: That’s a great compliment. It’s so funny, because when John [Leventhal, Rosanne Cash’s producer/husband] wrote the arrangement to “Sea of Heartbreak,” I said, “It’s so good, it feels like it’s always been there.” That’s a great feeling, and it feels that way to me too. It’s so familiar and yet not worn out. It’s familiar in a really good way.
JT: How did you two go about approaching these iconic songs?
RC: John and I are both sticklers about retaining the original melody and not deviating from what the songwriter intended in the melody, and also [we wanted] to be true to the original spirit of the song. At the same time I’ve been a songwriter for 35 years; I grew up in Southern California and I’ve been a New Yorker for 20 years, so I had to bring my sensibilities to it. I couldn’t just put on a mantle of being a country girl and do these country songs because it’s not who I am. The respect and love I have for this music and for my own musical genealogy had to be apparent on the record as well. Doing the arrangements was a dream job for John because he has as deep a love of roots music as I do, so it was thrilling for both of us.
JT: What made you pick these specific 12 songs out of the hundred on the List?
RC: The vetting process was kind of multi-layered because there were some songs that clearly I couldn’t do. My father had kind of a musicologist’s sensibility, so the list really encompassed every critical moment in the evolution of American music—at least Southern American music, folk and protest songs, Southern blues and gospel, and Appalachian [music]. He covered every base, and I knew I couldn’t do another version of “This Land is Your Land” or Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting for a Train,” so that was part of the process. We just started thinking about which ones really suited my voice, which ones I loved all these years and sung to myself for the last 30 years. Some we tried and they didn’t work, so we ended up with these.
JT: Any plans for a sequel?
RC: Yes! I’ve already been thinking about Volume Two, and John says “Can we please just get this one out?”
JT: You’ve got some really great guest stars on here. I know you’ve worked with Elvis Costello in the past, but what led you to seek out Rufus Wainwright, a wonderful singer, but one that people might not immediately associate with country or Southern music?
RC: Well, I’m friends with his dad [Loudon Wainwright III], one of the greatest American folk songwriters, so Rufus does have a legacy with American roots music. And I just love his voice. I belong more to his dad’s generation and I didn’t know Rufus, but he seemed to have the perfect voice for “Silver Wings”. I thought he was going to do a straight harmony and then he did all these orchestral backup parts and it was so exciting.
JT: There’s an upcoming book on the list (Always Been There: Rosanne Cash, “The List,” and the Spirit of Southern Music, by Michael Streissguth. What was your involvement with that project?
RC: I have a lot of respect for Mike Streissguth. He’d written a biography of my dad, written about Folsom Prison and he’s a teacher at Le Moyne College; I just really respected him. He’s a wonderful writer, he’s interviewed me a few times. I just trusted him, so I let him hang out at the studio and follow me around Europe. He was there for the beginning of the recording process, and he was actually around for pre-production too. It’s a really compelling idea [for a book] and the spirit of The List kinda took over.
JT: Perhaps some of our readers don’t know this, but you’re also an accomplished writer of fiction and nonfiction. How do your prose writing and songwriting influence one another?
RC: Sometimes there’s some cross-pollination. I wouldn’t say all the time. Sometimes it’s really direct: I wrote a poem for the New York Times about songwriting, so just to dismantle the process of songwriting was really helpful and interesting. It aroused my passion for songwriting just writing about it.
Once I wrote a short story entitled “Bells and Roses” that was in this collection I edited called Songs Without Rhyme. I was obsessed with this theme of bells and roses and then I ended up writing a song called “Bells and Roses.”
[“Bells and Roses” can be found on 10 Song Demo]
JT: As a young woman, you went on the road with your father, Carl Perkins, and the Carters. How’d that influence you as a performer?
RC: It influenced me more as a songwriter and guitar player. I learned how to play guitar from Helen Carter, Carl, and Maybelle a bit. We had long hours in the dressing room and they taught me all those Carter Family songs. That whole world of music was opened up to me. Then my dad made the list and that really opened the door on this vista of songs.
It was a tremendous thing to sit in the wings every night and watch my dad. He had a very unique relationship with an audience and he took his full self to the stage. He was his best self on the stage. So I saw how he did that and I saw how June was unique in that she was exactly the same onstage as she was offstage. There was no performer persona in her. She could be talking to you and walk straight onstage without breaking the conversation (laughs). To see a woman that comfortable in her skin as a performer, that was inspiring to me.
JT: Since your father’s passing, some artists have been sort of appropriating his memory, saying “Johnny Cash was this,” or “Johnny Cash thought this.” What are your thoughts on that: is it one of those inevitable things that occur when someone is such a public figure like your father was? Where do you draw the line?
RC: There’s a line that can be crossed that I protest at. Of course he belongs to the world as an artist and you can have your own interpretation of him as an artist. Someone as iconic as him, people project a lot of stuff on, and that’s totally understandable and fine. I have no problem with that. But when they start saying “he would think this,” I have a problem with that. I wouldn’t take your deceased parent and tell the world what I think they would think right at this moment. It’s just not fair. It’s not right. I guess you’re referring to when that gentleman [John Rich] tried to say my dad would have been for McCain; I didn’t think that was right and so I had to protest it. I protest them appropriating him for any political campaign. He’s not here to speak for himself, so it’s not fair.
JT: So, back to The List and the idea of family legacy. You got to work with your daughter, Chelsea Crowell. How was that?
RC: We weren’t actually in the same room. We sent her the audio because she lives in Nashville. She just made her first record and she’s going to put it out herself. She’s quite an amazing songwriter, so I’m very proud of her.
JT: Has she come to you for any words of advice as she embarks on this career, or are you trying to stay out of it?
RC: I do try to stay out of it, and believe me, she wants me to stay out of it. She’s only come to me for advice a couple times, and once was a technical “how do you do this tuning?” or something like that, and once it was “how do I have a successful career as a musician without having a public life?” And I said “I don’t know! I wish I knew the answer to that!”
JT: What’s next?
RC: Oh my God, I’m finishing my memoir which comes out next year. The List isn’t out yet, so I’m totally committed to that for the next year: performing and taking it around and everything. Then there’s a project I want to do with Joe Henry and Billy Bragg. These are very exciting times in my life!
JT: Anything you still want to accomplish career-wise?
RC: Oh, tons! In terms of outward success, not so much. But there’s tons of artistic things I want to do. I want to do this thing with Billy and Joe. Kris Kristofferson, Elvis Costello and I wrote a couple songs together; I’d love to finish that project. I want to do Volume Two of The List, I want to get my memoir out; there’s tons of creative things I have left to do.
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