Q&A: Rosanne Cash Sings Her Father's Favorites
A consummate Renaissance woman, Rosanne Cash has eschewed genre conventions throughout her long career. Of course, she had an excellent role model, being the eldest daughter of the late Johnny Cash. She scored her own string of country hits in the '80s and continues to record, as well as write books and contribute fiction and essays to such publications as the New York Times and Rolling Stone.
Her latest album, "The List," due Oct. 6 on EMI's Manhattan Records, is a collection of covers based on a list of 100 essential country songs that her father gave her when she was 18.
Produced by Cash's husband, John Leventhal, "The List" includes Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On" and Hank Williams' "Take These Chains From My Heart," as well as duets with Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Rufus Wainwright and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy.
How did you react when your father first presented you with his list of essential country songs?
I was thrilled. I know people think, "Oh, 18 years old, you wouldn't have sense enough to know what you were getting." I did, because I had just started playing guitar. Helen Carter was teaching me all the Carter Family songs. I was really steeped in rock and pop music but it was a whole other landscape that I didn't realize existed except for the most obvious things -- Patsy Cline and Ray Charles and my dad's music.
How did you narrow down a list of 100 songs to 13?
Some songs were clearly not suited for me to do -- they were either too gender-specific or I couldn't do another version of "This Land Is Your Land." Then there was the vetting of which songs were suited to my voice. There was also a sonic and emotional balancing so that it wasn't all "Motherless Children" and "Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow"; it was also "Heartaches by the Number."
What role did your husband, John Leventhal, play in your interpretation of the songs?
John did all the heavy lifting; these are his arrangements. It was a pure joy for me to get to sing them, but it was a pure joy for him to get to this. This is the dream project for him that he's been waiting his whole life to do. He's the only New Yorker I know who has such a deep and extensive knowledge of roots music and country music.
These are some of the best and biggest songs of the last 100 years. Was it intimidating to cut them?
"She's Got You" was a little bit because I knew Patsy Cline's record so well, and "Girl From the North Country" was because it seemed like a watershed moment in musical history. I have these pictures of my dad and Bob [Dylan] together. But John said, "No, we're going to go to Bob's original version; that's the doorway into the song," and it was. Bob's original version is a classic folk song. The rest of them, no, I wasn't intimidated. I've been singing "Silver Wings" in the shower for 30 years.
On your blog you wrote that this was the only record you could have made at this point in your life. Why?
Because my parents are dead, and I had a pretty serious face-off with my own mortality. You think about the things you want to do most of all in the world. It felt like the perfect and the only thing to do.
You look back at your ancestry. You want to know where you come from, who you are and what you're going to pass on to your kids, and "The List" is the perfect cohesion of all of that.
Do you feel any connection with today's country music?
I don't listen to country radio but I often hear things that I think are fun and exciting and good. I don't know who a lot of the young people are or what they sound like, but the other day I was flipping through the channels and I saw Taylor Swift. I'd heard so much about her, she's sold millions and millions of records, but I'd never heard her sing. I saw her on a George Strait tribute and I thought, "Wow, this little girl is really good, she's really got something." That's always exciting, when you see somebody who is so young and you can see that spark in them.