Johnny Cash’s List and Mine
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
- It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels
- I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
- Hey, Good Lookin’
- Your Cheatin’ Heart
- I Saw the Light
- Move It On Over
- I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You
- A Picture From Life’s Other Side
- That Long, Lonesome Whistle
- Lovesick Blues
- I Walk the Line
- Folsom Prison Blues
- I Still Miss Someone
- Big River
- Ballad of aTeenage Queen
- The Nearest Thing to Heaven
- Five Feet High and Rising
- Pick Me Up On Your Way Down
- Me and Bobby McGee
- Help Me Make It Through the Night
- I Fall to Pieces
- Okie From Muskogie
- King of the Road
- Oklahoma Hills
- This Land Is Your Land
- Stand By Your Man
- He Stopped Loving Her Today
- White Lightning
- The Race Is On
- I Always Get Lucky With You
- Land So Poor That Grass Won’t Grow
- The Telling Takes Me Home
- Starlight On the Rails
- Rock, Salt and Nails
- Queen of the Rails
- Old Shep
- T for Texas
- Hello Walls
- Ode to The Little Brown Shack Out Back
- Back Home Again
- Come In Stranger
- If the Good Lord’s Willin’
- It’s Such a Pretty Day Today
- Coal Miner’s Daughter
- Sixteen Tons
- Dark as the Dungeon
- I’m Back In the Saddle Again
- That Silver-haired Daddy of Mine
- Deck of Cards
- Mama Tried
- Thank God I’m a Country Boy
- Country Boy
- Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys
- Take Me Home Country Road
- Waiting For a Train
- City of New Orleans
- Ring of Fire
- I’m My Own Grandpa
- Mother, the Queen of My Heart
- Letter Etched In Black
- The Last Letter
- The Wabash Cannonball
- Ira Hayes
- Hobo Bill’s Last Ride
- Muleskinner Blues
- Born to Lose
- San Antonio Rose
- I’d Waltz Across Texas With You
- Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
- Hello Stranger
- The Sunny Side of Life
- Coat of Many Colors
- Satisfied Mind
- Hobo’s Lullaby
- Cool Water
- Tumbling Tumbleweeds
- Happy Trails to You
- Green Green Grass of Home
- Philadelphia Lawyer
- Together Again
- Saginaw, Michigan
- Yellow Rose of Texas
- The Prisoner’s Song
- El Paso
- Harper Valley PTA
- The Day That Clayton Delaney Died
- Almost Persuaded
- On the Road Again
- Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darling
- The Gambler
- Tennessee Waltz
- Wreck of the Old 97
- Great Speckled Bird
- Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
Ross Altman may be reached at Greygoosemusic@aol.com 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