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Rosanne Cash: Composed

Updated: May 7, 2020

Neil Morton

Johnny Cash was not alive to see the product of the legacy he had bequeathed his eldest daughter Rosanne. The List was the title of Rosanne Cash’s album of covers in 2009, a tribute to her father and the treasured songs he had recommended to her. This is the most disarming of memoirs, as beautifully written as her finest songs but desolate and heartbreaking at times. How she managed to balance the benefits and burdens of being who she is and reluctantly following in Johnny’s giant footsteps makes for difficult reading at times.

‘He cast an obviously large shadow,’ she writes, ‘and it was hard for me to find my own place outside of it, or to be comfortable when the shadow was the first thing people noticed about my life or my work.’ Johnny gave her the list of 100 essential songs for her to learn and always remember after she had left high school and was invited on the Cash tour bus for a summer which would help shape her career path. She learned how to play guitar too – from members of the extended Carter family and from Carl Perkins. What a graduation gift. Rosanne only discovered later that her dad was so worried the influence of the Beatles and their contemporaries might seduce her away from her country music heritage. It must have been a genuine trial, 35 years later, to open that dusty box and whittle the hallowed list down to 12 songs, the Cash commandments as they were aptly referred to. It had taken her guitarist-producer husband John Leventhal’s powers of persuasion to coax her into tackling the project in the first place. The List, she reveals, was her way of accepting her father’s legacy. ‘I wish he had been alive to hear it, and see me say yes to all of it, and more than that, to revel in it as if it is were a secret passed from parent to child, and a key to a particular familial mystery.’

The album included four collaborations: on the Hal David-Paul Hampton classic Sea Of Heartbreak she shares vocals with Bruce Springsteen whose Born To Run had had such a dramatic impact on her young ears; Harlan Howard’s Heartaches By The Number with her good friend Elvis Costello; and the lovely Merle Haggard composition Silver Wings with Rufus Wainwright. The reinterpreted songs had been made famous by a who’s who of legends: Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Hank Williams, Don Gibson, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Cochran, Patsy Cline, Bob Dylan and, of course, Johnny Cash. One of my favourite anecdotes from the book tells of Rosanne the 12-year-old seventh-grader at a Catholic school in California, writing an English assignment on metaphors and similes. In 1990 she came across a folder of papers her mother had passed on from her school days. ‘I came to a single page that said, in big letters I had printed very carefully: A lonely road is a bodyguard.’ She was so proud that she had resisted the temptation to insert the word ‘like’ before ‘a bodyguard’. She was so pleased with the line it was included in the lyrics for Sleeping In Paris on her album The Wheel. ‘Whenever I hear it now, or think of it, or sing it, I nod to my little girl self… This one line, in this one song, is how I know who I am, and how I know I survived.’

The most amusing tale concerns her recording of Tennessee Flat Top Box, a song she had heard her dad singing all her life but one she presumed had been written in the mists of time. Johnny was devilishly delighted to announce to the world that his daughter did not realise that he had actually written it. The song, with Randy Scraggs on lead guitar, appeared on Rosanne’s fine King’s Record Shop album in 1987, produced by her former husband, Rodney Crowell, whose magnificent I Don’t Have To Crawl is also covered here. Cash, Carter, Crowell. How’s that for a circle of writing and performing influences. And we should not forget Leventhal. Her last album The River & The Thread, containing such gems as A Feather’s Not A Bird, Modern Blue and The Long Way Home, is her most impressive work yet, and he was her guiding light. It was recorded in 2014, four years after Composed was published. The last words in the book are: More to come. Time for an updated issue, a reprise please.

‘We all need art and music like we need blood and oxygen,’ she writes. ‘The more exploitative, numbing, and assaulting popular culture becomes, the more we need the truth of a beautifully phrased song, dredged from a real person’s depth of experience, delivered in an honest voice.’ Rosanne says she harbours a fear that she has ‘a personal quota, bestowed at birth, of first-rate songs allotted to me, and I worry, after every new song I write, that I have finally reached that magic number’. The fear is unfounded. The magic numbers continue.

Rosanne Cash - Composed

Rosanne Cash feat. Rufus Wainwright - Silver Wings

Rosanne Cash with Bruce Springsteen - Sea Of Heartbreak

Roseanne Cash - Tennessee Flat Top Box

Johnny Cash - Flat Top Box

Rosanne Cash - Rosanne Cash - The River & The Thread (Trailer)

Rosanne Cash - Modern Blue

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