Make no mistake, Rosanne Cash fully understands the value of the sheet of yellow lined paper her father handed to her one summer day in 1973. Now she’s giving the world a peek.
Back then, she was 18, just graduated from high school, a daughter of divorce eager to spend time with her dad and learn the family business. She tagged along on a concert tour and talked music during the long bus rides. When Johnny Cash grew alarmed at the songs Rosanne didn’t know, he sat down with a pad and pen.
What he produced was a syllabus worthy of a master professor: Johnny Cash’s list of the “100 Essential Country Songs.”
Twelve of those songs make up “The List,” Cash’s new CD. Her first covers album includes duets with Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy and Rufus Wainwright.
Cash had put the list away after learning many of the songs. She had her own path to forge. It was forgotten in a box of memorabilia until she happened upon it late in 2005 while writing narrative portions of her “Black Cadillac” stage show. She talked about it during the concerts and fans would inevitably ask when she was going to record the songs. Her husband, music producer and guitarist John Leventhal, no doubt smiled.
“My husband has been telling me for 17 years, ‘Your voice is really well-suited to these songs,’ and I would go, ‘I’m a songwriter, I’m a songwriter,” she said. “Well, it turns out my voice really is well-suited to these songs.”
The disc showcases some of the best singing in Cash’s career, as she faces the challenge of carrying melodies other than her own and putting her stamp on songs already well known. The often spare arrangements also emphasize Leventhal’s guitar.
Cash begins with “Miss the Mississippi and You,” which the father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers, recorded in 1932. She ends with the Carter Family’s “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow,” which always reminds Cash of her step-aunt Helen Carter, who taught her the guitar.
‘It’s like going through tunnels and layers’The disc’s emotional centerpiece is the heartbreak trio of “Long Black Veil,” a duet with Wilco’s Tweedy on a prisoner’s tale best known through Johnny Cash’s version; the Patsy Cline hit “She’s Got You”; and Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country,” a composition that first intimidated Cash because she remembered her father singing it with Dylan on television.
Recording meant finding the songs’ emotional core. “It’s like going through tunnels and layers,” she said.
The songs are some of the things that connect father and daughter and, Rosanne believed, it was time to claim the legacy.
“I don’t have that young person’s feeling of trying to get away from my ancestry and parents and what they passed on,” she said. “In fact, I want to embrace it, so I can show it and pass it along to my own (five) kids. It’s just unseemly at my age (54) to be doing that kind of ‘chip on your shoulder’ rebellion.”
Besides the personal connection, it’s important to keep the songs alive, she said.
“Can you imagine America without this music?” she said. “It’s who we are, culturally. It’s as important as the Civil War, these songs. Personally, I would hate to see them become something you just visit at a museum. I think they are living and breathing and part of our cultural legacy.”
“The List” is probably part of Cash’s grieving process, said Jay Orr, historian for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He recalled the Everly Brothers putting out an album, “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us,” during the peak of their success.
“The songs benefit from being dusted off and shared again in new arrangements that are contemporary and appealing,” Orr said.
She’s often thought about how the list would be different if her father had compiled it closer to his death in 2003. George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” would probably be on it. He loved Springsteen’s “Nebraska” album and would likely have included one of those songs. Her father wasn’t so modest as to leave his own material off the list, but you’ll have to guess what it is.
Cash has also recorded a couple of extras: a duet with Neko Case on Porter Wagoner’s “Satisfied Mind” will be available on iTunes. Mickey Newbury’s “Sweet Memories” is another promotional item.
That makes 14. She noted “This Land is Your Land” is on the list, revealing a song that she didn’t want to record because it’s so well known.
So what about the other 85?
How much has she been offered to reveal it? “A lot,” Cash said with a laugh. She’s already thinking about a second volume of “The List.” Why give anyone the chance to beat her to it?
“I like having it as my own,” she said. “It’s like a martial arts secret.”