November-December 2009

Johnny Cash's List,
and Mine

By Ross Altman

Topflight rock musicians Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy and-hang onto your cowboy hats, buckaroos-Rufus Wainwright all take turns as Rosanne Cash's sidekick on her just-released return to the thrilling days of yesteryear in country music, but I'm not convinced they know how to ride this particular horse.

Her new album The List puts me in mind of Billy Crystal's charming comedy City Slickers, in which a group of dude ranch cowboys from LA decide to go on a real trail drive, just for the fun of it. It's played for many great laughs, and finally reaches a credible destination, as Billy Crystal is moved to return to his former life in the big city, but with a souvenir in tow-a cow he has fallen in love with and refuses to turn over to the slaughterhouses to become someone's steak dinner. The movie works because Billy Crystal knows who he is, and who he is not.

I am not sure Rosanne Cash does, and that's the problem.

In 1973, when Rosanne Cash was 18 years old, indeed the day after she graduated from high school, she jumped on her father Johnny Cash's tour bus and began her long sojourn into contemporary country rock music. As they got better acquainted (she was his daughter by his first wife, Vivian, and grew up in Ventura, California), Johnny Cash asked her what she thought of a song he had long admired. She had never heard of it. He asked her about another; she had never heard of it either-and another; and so on. He became appalled that she knew so many rock and pop songs of her generation, and so little of the music that was his life's work.

He pulled out a yellow, legal sized notebook and started writing down titles of songs he thought she should know, if she was going to start a career in music. When he finished he gave his notebook of song titles a title: 100 Essential Country Songs. It included songs not typically thought of as "country songs," old folk songs, Appalachian ballads, protest songs, early country classics by such artists as Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and The Carter Family, modern "folk" songs by such artists as Bob Dylan and (I must assume) Kris Kristofferson, whom he had brought into the country tent, and even a few of his own compositions.

That parenthetical phrase is an important one, because Rosanne Cash has coyly refused to publicize the remaining songs on what she refers to as "The List," beyond the 13 she has recorded for her first foray into her father's bottomless song-bag. She is determined to keep it a secret, to add to the news value of each successive album she most likely has in mind to release in the future, having gotten so much publicity value out of this first one.

Nonetheless, based on the songs Roseanne Cash selected for her first foray (with her husband, producer/arranger and multi-instrumentalist John Leventhal), you do get a representative sampling of the kind of songs her father had in mind. For example, The List includes a Bob Dylan classic, Girl From the North Country, based on the fact that Johnny Cash recorded it with Bob for Dylan's ninth studio album Nashville Skyline. That famous duet is a wonderful recording, so much so that you find yourself wondering why it had to be re-recorded by Johnny's talented daughter. This is not a bad version, but it is not even as moving as Dylan's solo recording on his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, which is not as moving as Johnny and Bob together. So if you have never heard the originals you will enjoy it.

And if you have never heard Joan Baez sing Long Black Veil, or Johnny Cash sing it, (yes, he recorded many of the songs on The List) you will enjoy Rosanne Cash's version, for it is a great song (by Danny Dill and Marijon Wilkins). The problem is that Joan Baez's version is definitive. And Johnny Cash's version is...well, Johnny Cash, one of the great voices of the 20th century.

In other words, Rosanne Cash is not just competing with her old man and with the King and Queen of Folk, she is competing with monuments. So my question is, aside from the hook of drawing her choice of songs from "The List," what is the reason to cover these songs, when the original recordings are by great artists, all of which are still available. So far, I am not able to answer that question, except for the clear fact that she is 1) trading on her father's name and 2) banking on the likelihood that her audience is just as ignorant as she was when she was 18 and had never heard these songs, or heard of them.

On the count of number 1, I suppose that if anyone is entitled to trade on Johnny Cash's name, it would be his daughter; after all, it hasn't hurt Hank Williams, Jr.-it's a Family Tradition.

But I am not here to cavil. Rosanne Cash has put together a good collection of first-rate songs, but except for one they are not the songs that would have made it onto my list.

That one exception is by folk singer, notably not a country singer, Hedy West, the daughter of Appalachian poet Don West, whose poems and stories of true country life, far removed from Nashville and the Country Music Industry, informed her childhood. Yes, Five Hundred Miles made the list, and unquestionably would have made mine.

But get Hedy West's recording of the song, on Vanguard Records, if you want to hear it in all its unpretentious simplicity. Hedy West's voice is straight out of the mountains where she was born and raised, raw and earthy, and with a gritty beauty all its own.

There's not a country singer alive who can touch it.

My List would go on to include such songs as Which Side Are You On by Florence Reece, Dreadful Memories and I Am a Union Woman by Aunt Molly Jackson, I Don't Want Your Millions, Mister by Jim Garland, I Hate the Capitalist System by Sarah Ogan Gunning (she didn't need Michael Moore to tell her capitalism was evil-all she needed was to grow up in Harlan County, Kentucky), Deportee by Woody Guthrie (music by Martin Hoffman), The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, by Bob Dylan and I Ain't Marching Anymore by Phil Ochs.

I could go on, but you get the idea. If any of these songs appear on Roseanne Cash's future recordings from "the List," I will apologize in these pages to Johnny's daughter.

But don't let my often-repeated prejudice on behalf of hard-hitting songs for hard-hit people interfere with your potential enjoyment of an album clearly made with a lot of love, respect for tradition, her beautiful voice, and her husband's remarkable talent on and passion for a variety of acoustic instruments. They have used the late guitar master Les Paul's trailblazing inventions with multi-track recording to great advantage here; Rosanne Cash's husband John Leventhal plays many of these instruments on the same song, overlaying the tracks as they went. If you close your eyes, you won't even notice.

Rosanne Cash's problem is that she has made this album nominally to serve history; but in the end, it is precisely that history which lurks like a ghost in the background of every performance, and keeps calling me back to the originals. I can still hear Mother Maybelle Carter and A.P. Carter sing Bury Me Beneath the Willow.

I can still hear Don Gibson sing Sea of Heartbreak.

I can still hear Jimmie Rodgers sing Miss the Mississippi and You.

And I can still hear Hank Williams sing Take These Chains From My Heart.

Rosanne Cash may stand on their shoulders, but she doesn't get as deep inside those songs as them what dug them out of their own despair, and transformed that despair into brief glimmers of musical light.

The cold hard truth is that I take my whiskey straight, no chaser.

But again, don't let my jaded 62 year-old ears stop you; this collection is still a heady brew. John Leventhal beautifully produced The List; Rosanne Cash's husband is an outstanding guitar player, multi-instrumentalist and arranger, whose presence on every track makes for very enjoyable listening indeed. And had this album been called, "12 good love songs," I would have given it a rave review. Had it been called, "Rosanne Cash takes a whistle-stop tour through some of country music's forgotten gems," I would also have been well pleased. Or had it been called, "City Slickers Go Country," I would also have been more than generous in my praise.

But it's not called any of those unassuming but accurate titles; it's called The List. As a marketing device it's a stroke of genius. But as a description of what it purports to be-the essential country songs, it might as well have been called "The Missed."

I Walk the Line is missing; so is I Still Miss Someone; so is I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry.

This bright, shiny, gifted, transplanted New York City big apple fell a long way from that hardscrabble Dyess, Arkansas tree.

Before Johnny Cash picked guitar, he picked cotton. And they don't teach that in school. Now, dear Reader, if you want to compile your own list of "100 essential country songs," find a copy of Kitty Wells singing, It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels, and start from there. You may still go astray, but at least you'll be on the right path.

And take a few of these songs, none of which are on her album, along for good luck.

100 Essential Country Songs

By Ross Altman
 

  1. It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels
  2. I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry
  3. Hey, Good Lookin'
  4. Your Cheatin' Heart
  5. I Saw the Light
  6. Move It On Over
  7. Jambalaya
  8. I Can't Help It If I'm Still In Love With You
  9. A Picture From Life's Other Side
  10. That Long, Lonesome Whistle
  11. Lovesick Blues
  12. I Walk the Line
  13. Folsom Prison Blues
  14. I Still Miss Someone
  15. Big River
  16. Ballad of aTeenage Queen
  17. The Nearest Thing to Heaven
  18. Five Feet High and Rising
  19. Busted
  20. Pick Me Up On Your Way Down
  21. Me and Bobby McGee
  22. Help Me Make It Through the Night
  23. Crazy
  24. I Fall to Pieces
  25. Okie From Muskogie
  26. King of the Road
  27. Oklahoma Hills
  28. This Land Is Your Land
  29. Stand By Your Man
  30. He Stopped Loving Her Today
  31. White Lightning
  32. The Race Is On
  33. I Always Get Lucky With You
  34. Land So Poor That Grass Won't Grow
  35. The Telling Takes Me Home
  36. Starlight On the Rails
  37. Rock, Salt and Nails
  38. Queen of the Rails
  39. Old Shep
  40. T for Texas
  41. Hello Walls
  42. Jackson
  43. Ode to The Little Brown Shack Out Back
  44. Back Home Again
  45. Come In Stranger
  46. If the Good Lord's Willin'
  47. It's Such a Pretty Day Today
  48. Coal Miner's Daughter
  49. Sixteen Tons
  50. Dark as the Dungeon
  51. I'm Back In the Saddle Again
  52. That Silver-haired Daddy of Mine
  53. Deck of Cards
  54. Mama Tried
  55. Thank God I'm a Country Boy
  56. Country Boy
  57. Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys
  58. Take Me Home Country Road
  59. Waiting For a Train
  60. City of New Orleans
  61. Paradise
  62. Ring of Fire
  63. I'm My Own Grandpa
  64. Mother, the Queen of My Heart
  65. Letter Etched In Black
  66. The Last Letter
  67. The Wabash Cannonball
  68. Ira Hayes
  69. Hobo Bill's Last Ride
  70. Muleskinner Blues
  71. Born to Lose
  72. San Antonio Rose
  73. I'd Waltz Across Texas With You
  74. Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
  75. Hello Stranger
  76. The Sunny Side of Life
  77. Coat of Many Colors
  78. Satisfied Mind
  79. Hobo's Lullaby
  80. Cool Water
  81. Tumbling Tumbleweeds
  82. Happy Trails to You
  83. Green Green Grass of Home
  84. Philadelphia Lawyer
  85. Together Again
  86. Saginaw, Michigan
  87. Yellow Rose of Texas
  88. The Prisoner's Song
  89. El Paso
  90. Abilene
  91. Harper Valley PTA
  92. The Day That Clayton Delaney Died
  93. Almost Persuaded
  94. On the Road Again
  95. Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darling
  96. The Gambler
  97. Tennessee Waltz
  98. Wreck of the Old 97
  99. Great Speckled Bird
  100. Knockin' On Heaven's Door

Ross Altman may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. He will be the featured performer at the Workmen's Circle on Sunday, November 8, in a show called, The Revolution is Just a T-Shirt Away. For complete information see their web site: www.circlesocal.org

  

All Columns by Ross Altman