(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
When she debuted her new album, The List, at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in mid-September of this year, it marked a homecoming for Rosanne Cash, who had left Nashville to live and work in New York City many years earlier.
Cash looked around the Hall of Fame’s packed Ford Theater at so many familiar faces from throughout her life and career, and she said, with some feeling, “I know you have thought of me as your prodigal daughter. This evening brings me full circle in so many ways. My daughter is here tonight, and so is my father’s memory. This building is like a scrapbook. So many family mementoes are upstairs.”
With that, she launched into Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You,” from The List. When she finished, she gave an audible sigh of relief. “I’m glad that’s over!” she said. “I’ve never performed it [“She’s Got You”] live before.”
Cash’s latest project stems from a gift her father Johnny Cash gave her in 1973, when she was 18, just out of school and working with him on his road show.
CMT: What was happening in your life when he wrote this list for you?
We were on the bus. I was on the road with dad, and we were just talking about songs. And I said I don’t know this one, I don’t know that one. Then I said I don’t know that one either. He grew alarmed. And he spent the rest of the afternoon making me a list. I remember going back and forth from the front of the bus to the back and seeing him still back there. He had his legal pad, and he was so pensive, thinking about what was gonna be next on the list. Then at the end, he said, “This is your education.”
So this turned into a list of 100 essential songs that he said you should know?
Yes! And I heard somebody say, “Oh, that’s a good story, but I can’t believe Johnny Cash could sit down and come up with this list of 100 essential songs and not look them up somewhere. Of course he would do it and, of course, he had this intuitive understanding of every critical juncture in the history of American music. Not just country, but Southern blues, gospel, Appalachian, folk songs, protest songs and so on.
Did your father ever get an opportunity to lecture on music at all?
You know, once, in ’87, I asked him to come to [her daughter] Chelsea’s kindergarten class to talk to the class about music. And he did. He gave this overview of the history of country and American music in 20 minutes in terms that a 5-year-old could understand. I was sitting there with my jaw on my chest. I remember a mother sitting next to me, who leaned over and said, “My God! Somebody should record this!” And somebody should’ve. But I feel that somebody has, a little bit.
When he gave you that list, who were you as a person?
I was a young 18. I was steeped in pop and rock music. I grew up in Southern California. And, of course, everything had gone in by osmosis, you know. Patsy Cline and Ray Charles. His Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music was a huge record for me because my mother played it for me all the time. The music I chose for myself was pop and rock. But going on the road with my dad when I was 18 — this was a reconnection for me because my parents were divorced and I was only with him summers and weekends. But I wanted the music, too. I was really hungry for it. Helen [Carter, Maybelle Carter’s daughter and June Carter’s sister] had just started teaching me to play guitar, I had just started learning Carter Family songs. So I was open to it. I think two years earlier, I would not have been.
As is often the case with children of country artists, did you hate country as a child and teenager?
As a teenager, I professed to hate country music. As a child, I could listen to Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds all day long. But you have to separate yourself and find out what you love. And then find out what was there all along. It’s like the T.S. Eliot line about returning where you began and knowing it for the first time.
With your father and Maybelle, Helen, June and Anita Carter and Carl Perkins traveling together on the road, did you realize the legacy you were living in?
Not really. As a kid, you don’t. That’s something you reflect on in middle age. But, Maybelle was a character, she was salty. I dug her. And Helen. Helen was a bit of a nervous wreck. But when she played the music and sang the songs, she just centered. She just had a mastery. I had her in my mind the whole time I was recording “Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow.” I couldn’t stop thinking about Helen, and I think about her now. I’m not sure I was ever able to let her know the value of what she gave to me and how important that was. The way she taught me songs that allowed me to do them authentically. It wasn’t like, “This is something that’s great that you can’t really touch or step into.” It was like, “This is a living, breathing art that you can do.” That was so important for me to learn from her — You can do this. Carl was always noodling around on his guitar and, once in a while, he would show me something or teach me a chord. But Helen was the one who put in the hours. Anita and June would pass through and like suggest a song that I should learn. But Helen put in the hours.
When he gave you the list, did you actually study it?
I think I did sit down and study it. And I made a point of learning most of the songs. I think I made myself an autodidact about the list. What’s amazing to me in all the moves in my life is that I didn’t lose the list. Then, when I was writing the narrative to The Black Cadillac show, I was going through a file and I found it. In 2005. And I had forgotten about it! I started reading over it and, even then, I didn’t really get the import of it. I did, but not really. I thought, ’Oh, this is really cool. I’ll write about it for the Black Cadillac show. So I made it a narrative to that — “When I was 18 years old my father made me a list.” Well, people started coming up to me in droves, saying, “When are you gonna record the list? Where’s the list? What about this list?” So it started to sink in.
After he gave it to you, did he ever talk to you about it?
Nope. He wasn’t like that. For him, when something was over, it was over. He just kept going. I could just kick myself for not asking him to update it.
What would you add to it now, of songs from the past three decades?
Boy, I have thought about that so much. If it was gonna strictly be country, that would make it easier. My God, if it was all of music — I would have to add Neil Young and Springsteen. There are some songs from Nebraska that would have to be on there. And “He Stopped Loving Her Today” would have to be there.
When did you decide to record this?
At first I resisted it. John [Leventhal, her husband and producer on the project] said, “You’ve got to do it.” My first reaction was, “I don’t want to use my dad.” John said, “No. This is your list. He gave this to you.” Then I got it in a bigger way. It was time to step into that legacy. Of what my dad had given me. It was like a martial arts secret. I had to do some psychological work on myself. I had to remove the last vestiges of that tiny chip on my shoulder about doing it on my own, by myself, about I’m not gonna use dad, not gonna ride his coattails. I’m middle-aged now. I’m past the time for that. You lose your parents, you start thinking about what they left you. How important it was. In a way, I had to lose them to make this record.
How did you go about picking 12 of the songs for this album?
Well, some of them aren’t appropriate for me to sing. Like “This Land Is Your Land.” I know why it’s on the list but we don’t need another version of it. Or “Great Speckled Bird.” Then you start thinking, “Well, which Hank Williams song is it gonna be?” Which songs have I been singing to myself for 30 years? I mean, I’ve sung “Silver Wings” to myself in the shower for 30 years! “Long Black Veil,” I knew was central. It had to be there. I knew there had to be a Carter Family song. I just had to decide which one.
What about volume two of The List?
Yeah, what about volume two? I’ve already started talking about it to John. In fact, there’s one outtake that we did not put on this record that’s got to start the next one. [Cash sings] “I’ll be there if you ever want me by your side. … So love me.”