Rosanne Cash makes to-do lists of everything, whether it's errands to run or songs to sing

by Jon Bream

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

12 February 2010


These days, it seems like everyone wants a list from Rosanne Cash.

Time magazine asked for her Short List of Things to Do. Her manager needed a list of changes for Cash’s Web site. And daughter Chelsea Crowell requested a list of essential songs — just like the one Cash got when she was a teenager.

Listomania for Cash kicked into high gear in October when she released “The List,” a critically acclaimed collection of 12 tunes drawn from a list of 100 essential American songs that her father, Nashville legend Johnny Cash, gave her in 1973.

She had just graduated from high school in California and was about to go on tour with her dad. Having been raised on the Beatles and rock music, she asked him for a list of country songs she should know. He grabbed a yellow legal pad and, over the course of a couple of hours, scratched the titles of a bunch of songs.

The tunes were actually tailored to Rosanne’s voice, which she was still in the process of discovering.

“I didn’t have much of a voice at 18,” said Cash, who went on to record 10 No. 1 country hits in the 1980s.

In 2005, two years after her father’s death, Cash rediscovered that list in a box, and obviously it took on more significance. Still, she’s not putting it in a frame or donating it to a museum.

“Now it’s in my box of memorabilia and letters and stuff,” said Cash, 54, by phone while on tour.“I’m resisting the attempts to fetishize it. A lot of people want to make it some kind of holy grail of documents and ‘How could you fold it?’ and ‘When are you going to take it to the Smithsonian?’ and all that. At this point, it’s an important thing, but it’s still a list that my dad gave me. It’s not part of the Johnny Cash coopted archives of the world.”

Working with her producer/husband/guitarist John Leventhal, Cash narrowed the list of songs to record. Still, some of their choices intimidated her, especially Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You” (“because it was Patsy Cline”) and Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country.”

“It was a pretty iconic version that my dad and Bob did (together),” she said. “But John was very smart in taking Bob’s original version as a template rather than the duet. The duet is very different; it’s even got a different melody. Once I got around that and looked at it as kind of this classic Elizabethan folk song, then it made sense.”

Other songs on “The List” include “500 Miles,” “Take These Chains From My Heart” and “Sea of Heartbreak,” a duet with Bruce Springsteen.

Even though there is a copious book about her project by Johnny Cash biographer Michael Streissguth — “Always Been There: Rosanne Cash, ‘The List’ and the Spirit of Southern Music” — she won’t disclose the other songs on her dad’s list. She plans to record “Volume 2” in the not too distant future.

However, she didn’t hesitate to talk about the other projects on her list. Her memoir, “Composed,” will be published in August. “It’s not a straight chronology,” said Cash, who’s still editing the manuscript. “It’s more ambient. It’s how the past connects to the present, and who I met, and the songs I sang along the way.”

The New York-based singer/songwriter also has hatched two projects of original songs — one in collaboration with Joe Henry and Billy Bragg, the other as a trio with Kris Kristofferson and Elvis Costello. “We wrote and recorded two songs already,” she said of the latter group.

Meanwhile, Cash is working on a list of essential songs requested by the youngest of her four daughters, Chelsea, 28, who released her debut disc in November. Mom has come up with about 20, including “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Born to Run,” “What’s Goin’ On,” “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and “Long Black Veil,” which was also on Johnny Cash’s list.

Which of Rosanne’s own songs will be on her list?

“Maybe ‘Seven Year Ache’ for “historical reasons” (it’s her biggest hit) and ‘Sleeping in Paris,’” she said. “If I had to choose one, I’d choose ‘The World Unseen.’ I think poetically it’s really good and it’s got a narrative arch to it that’s subtle.”

Cash is not an obsessive list-maker, but “likes lists. They make things manageable.”

So what’s the latest list she’s made?

“My to-do list, and I made it this morning,” she said. She pulled it out and read it over the phone: “Get a family recipe to send into (her son) Jake’s teacher because they’re doing this cookbook as a Haiti benefit. That’s No. 1 on the list. Refill a prescription. Call the cleaning lady. Re-book lunch with two girlfriends. Buy a ticket to Boston. Not very interesting, but useful.”

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