Glass half empty: In 1973, Johnny Cash sat down and wrote out a list of a hundred songs that he felt any self-respecting, serious country artist should learn, ranging from early country to Southern gospel, folk to Delta blues, protest songs to traditional songs of the Appalachians. He gave the list to his daughter Rosanne, who at 18 was out on tour with him, getting her feet wet as a backup singer and learning to play guitar during breaks between sets.
But Rosanne had put the list away in favor of forging her own musical path with eclectic, moody masterpieces like Interiors and Black Cadillac, albums that earned her the reputation as one of the finest singer-songwriters of her generation.
It wasn’t until the loss of her father in 2003, preceded by his wife and Rosanne’s stepmother June, and the death of her own mother, that Rosanne began to revisit the idea of her family’s legacy of music via the list. Recovery from brain surgery in 2007 heightened her sense of urgency.
In 2008, she returned to the idea of making an album based on her father’s list. Music writer Michael Streissguth—a long-time fan who had gained an audience with Rosanne during the the writing of his book, Johnny Cash: The Biography—was ecstatic to hear the news. He suggested she let him document the process. Rosanne agreed, eager to launch what she saw as a crucial addition to America’s musical history: “This lexicon,” she said of the list, “is part of who we are.”
Just one problem: The list was nowhere to be found.
The missing list is the often exasperating but ultimately fruitful dilemma that drives Always Been There: Rosanne Cash, The List, and the Spirit of Southern Music (Da Capo Press, $24.00. 240 pp), Streissguth’s emotion-packed, behind-the-scenes account of the making of the album—also called The List—and what it took for Rosanne to bridge the chasm she’d created when she walked away from her country-music throne, far from her father’s shadow.
The book chronicles a five-month period as the album comes to life, largely in the Gansevoort St. studio in NYC where Rosanne and husband/producer/bandmate John Leventhal holed up to wrestle the songs into a shape that satisfied them both. Streissguth juxtaposes the recording sessions with an illuminating look back at Rosanne’s career, and he throws in choice tidbits about each song: who wrote it, everyone who recorded it, why it would have made Cash’s list.
Lengthy transcripts of interviews with Rosanne follow wherever the songs take her: where and when she first heard them; childhood memories of Johnny and her mother, Vivian; thoughts on her musical apprenticeship with the Carter family; flashbacks of the way Columbia Records reacted to her road-less-traveled album, Interiors: “I was so satisfied, spiritually, creatively, in every way, and I delivered it to them and they go, ‘We can’t do anything with this.’ Handshake. I’m out the door.”
Streissguth’s tendency to capture everything Rosanne says on tape can be annoying at times—frequent references to “the list” get old, and sometimes her train of thought rambles. But his unapologetically doting approach—he’s as interested in wandering around a home decor store with her as he is in getting her to open up about her famous father—gets results. In response to his questions, Rosanne dives into her psyche and her past in search of answers a less skillful biographer than Streissguth might have missed.
The prickly, Svengali-like Leventhal is not so easily won over, afraid Streissguth will reveal “too much about the process and … undercut the mystery and romance of this record making.” But even Leventhal defrosts under Streissguth’s affable prodding, describing how he “clears a path” for Rosanne in the song arrangements, how he thinks “she was born to sing this stuff.”
In the early stages of the project, Rosanne worried that to reconstruct the list would revisit age-old conflicts with her father, including a public whose voracious appetite for all things Cash often eclipsed her identity. “This gets me very close to Dad again,” she said.
Again, there are two ways to look at it. A lot of people would love to know every song on the list.
But in the end, you may agree with Rosanne when she says, “I’m glad I didn’t find it.” Instead, having to “think more deeply about the songs themselves” and about what each one meant to her father as he chose it, has been a blessing in disguise: “This whole life around the list,” she says, “has gotten really rich and interesting.”
Glass half full.
Songs on Rosanne Cash’s The List:
“Miss the Mississippi and You” Jimmy Rogers
“Motherless Children” Son House, Josh White
“Sea of Heartbreak” Don Gibson
“Take These Chains From My Heart” Hank Williams
“I’m Movin’ On” Hank Snow
“Heartaches by the Number” Ray Price
“500 Miles” Bobby Bare
“Long Black Veil” Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash
“She’s Got You” Patsy Cline
“Girl From the North Country” Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash
“Silver Wings” Merle Haggard
“Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow” A.P. Carter