In 2006, Rosanne Cash released Black Cadillac, a tribute to her father, mother, and stepmother. Embarking on a rare tour to support the album, she revealed that her father, the late Johnny Cash, had once compiled a list of 100 essential country songs, which he presented to his daughter when she was in her late teens and primarily a fan of rock ‘n’ roll.
When word got out that Johnny Cash had compiled such a list, music geeks everywhere (and probably more than a few record label execs trying to figure out further ways to, ahem, cash in on the legend himself post-Walk the Line) were bursting at the seams with excitement. After all, who wouldn’t be interested in learning which songs Cash—the Zeus of the country music pantheon—deemed essential listening? As anyone who’s listened to his American Recordings or Personal Files is aware, Cash was a serious scholar of music, and this knowledge was reflected in his own work, which included covers of everyone and everything from Jimmie Rodgers to Nine Inch Nails, oldtime hymns to reggae.
Something had to be done with this list of songs. Though it was a personal artifact, passed between generations like a family Bible, there was also a sense of obligation to the music world at large, thanks not only to the list, but its iconic maker. As Rosanne Cash said (emphasis mine), “When I think about the music and what it means and this opportunity to reinterpret it, to document it, it’s part of a lexicon of American music, it’s a responsibility and an honor.”
In addition to this idea of historical preservation, Cash expresses a desire for an album of the list’s songs to serve as a counterpoint to the current state of American music as well as “the idea that now people are writing songs without ever learning to play an instrument or having studied who their predecessors were or read great lyrics or understood what makes a great song, much less sit at the knee of a master and learn, it is troubling.”
After Cash’s recovery from a benign brain condition that forced her to undergo serious surgery and a lengthy period of recovery in 2007, accompanied by husband/producer John Leventhal, she embarked on the project of creating this album based on her father’s list. They winnowed the number of potential songs to 12, then enlisted a roster of guest stars that ranged from the familial (Cash’s daughter, Chelsea Crowell) and the expected (Springsteen, Costello, Tweedy) to the surprising-yet-wonderful (Rufus Wainwright’s lovely vocals on Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings”). Now the pair had a selection of songs they wanted to record and some A-list talent to accompany them.
There was, however, one slight problem: the list itself was nowhere to be found. Cash’s search for the list underlies the entire project as she rifles through files, rummages through closets, and even enlists the help of a psychic (who hilariously and apparently in utter seriousness informs her “I have an answer for you, but I haven’t received your check yet”).
Following Cash and Leventhal throughout their musical journey and search for the actual Johnny Cash-penned list was Michael Streissguth. He was no stranger to the Johnny Cash legend, having written a biography of the man as well as worked on a documentary about the famous Folsom Prison concert. He mentions that he was initially uneasy about undertaking a project about Rosanne and the list, citing a somewhat frosty encounter when he interviewed her for his Folsom project. But he shadowed the two throughout the process, spending time in the studio, the Cash-Leventhal home, even accompanying the pair on Rosanne’s European concert dates…where several of the spectators admit that they have no clue who she is other than “Johnny Cash’s daughter”.
Streissguth’s final result: Always Been There: Rosanne Cash, The List, and the Spirit of Southern Music. He’s able to delve into the music as well as further explore the spirit of Johnny Cash, which naturally permeates both album and text, best exemplified in an anecdote told by Rosanne in which her father speaks to her kindergarten class about music: “I was with my chin on my chest because he was so erudite, and he was so coherent about the arc of it. He started with Appalachian and went through protest songs to Delta blues…he connected the dots so that all these five- and six-year olds could understand it…after he ended it, this little kid raised his hand and said ‘Can you duck walk?’ My dad said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ And he got up and he did it.” (Appalachian music to the duck walk: is there any better summary of American music?)
As an album, The List is wonderful, perhaps Rosanne Cash’s strongest release since King’s Record Shop. It’s at once familiar—after all, these are songs any country music fan has heard over and over again—and new. But being able to read Always Been There in conjunction with listening to The List is a real treat. Sure, there are moments when the text pulls the curtain off the mysterious world of music making but it also provides valuable insight into Cash and John Leventhal as artists and human beings. We’re able to learn about their approach to the music and that allows us to approach these songs by Hank Williams, The Carter Family, and more with fresh ears.
Perhaps, then, the tangible list isn’t what is important about Rosanne Cash’s ambitious project (though I’ve got to be honest here: I’d give my eyeteeth for a peek at it). The search for tradition and family history, the ability music has to connect us with loved ones and complete strangers…these are the things that matter.