[7 October 2009]
Rosanne Cash’s new album takes its name from a list her father prepared to provide his daughter an education in country music, via 100 essential songs. Cash has culled 12 and offers them as The List, an intensely focused and affecting addition to her catalog. Predictably, given its personal lineage, this new record has a distinctly ruminative feel. But where Cash’s last album, 2006’s Black Cadillac, was an extended and direct tribute to her father—as well as her mother, Vivian Liberto Cash Distin, and step-mother, June Carter Cash—the List hits several of the same notes but from a more oblique angle.
The sound here is of a piece with her recent output: smooth and slightly folky with a richly detailed atmosphere. For all its nominal gentleness, however, The List features some gutsy moves. Her cover of Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country” is an obvious example. It’s a heavily freighted song given her father’s involvement in Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. Cash wisely decides to side-step any familiar arrangement, allowing her version to unfold slowly, with the steady rhythm of a slightly accelerated heartbeat. This deliberateness is always admirable but sometimes close to self-defeating. It seems to take Bruce Springsteen, that “hillbilly singer from New Jersey”, as Steve Earle called him, to shake loose “Sea of Heartbreak” and make it move with the bounce that it does. So while this record clearly doesn’t intend to overwhelm, it makes subtler—and perhaps more rewarding—demands of its listeners.
As a singer, Cash’s touch seems to have softened some. That means there are stretches where she recedes a bit into producer Jon Leventhal’s nuanced soundscapes and their digitized brightness, an environment impressive for its clarity but one that occasionally lacks a natural breath. At first glance, Cash’s firm enunciation feels at odds with the songs’ lineage in country and folk. But it comes clear on repeated listens that The List offers these songs as dressed-up siblings of the entries in the Great American Songbook. These are standard songs no matter the context or arrangement, she argues. And it’s a neat trick that serves both the singer and the songs well.
Despite her Southern roots, Cash has long been a proud New Yorker and that urbane sensibility often shows up on The List. Indeed, this is ultimately a country record gone to the city, as her interpretations are more measured and a bit cooler than the original versions. That’s what makes a track like Hedy West’s classic “500 Miles” all the more poignant. Cash understands that, in the contemporary world, home is a relative term, but that doesn’t make it any easier to be away. Similarly, “Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow” turns the Carter Family song inside out somehow. It’s the uncertain clause “perhaps he’ll weep for me” in the dour song’s refrain that the whole thing pivots on, as it moves through despair into a new kind of hopefulness, however ill-fated it might actually be. Hope against hope, as they say—another iteration of Cash’s mature vision.
With Black Cadillac, Rosanne Cash proved herself as one of our most consistent and generous songwriters. On The List, it’s a remarkable testament to her broader artistry that the same consistency and generosity extends to a batch of cover songs. Thanks to Rosanne, Johnny Cash’s list is a gift that survives to give again.