When singer/songwriter Rosanne Cash was still a teenager, she spent a summer on tour with her famous father, Johnny Cash. To ground her in country music traditions, he gave her a list of 100 songs essential to the genre — standards popularized by Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rogers and others. In 2009, she released a dozen of them as The List; the album was eventually nominated for a Grammy. In 2010, Cash published a memoir, Composed. Cash, who performs May 5 in Concord with her husband and producer John Leventhal, spoke with the Hippo by telephone recently from her home in New York City.
Why is The List so important?
I think you need to know the tradition you’re building your own work on. Nobody’s original. If you don’t know the traditions you come from, how are going to expand on it and bring yourself to it, you know? I used to teach songwriting and sometimes I still do these classes at colleges, and a lot of them have the hubris to think that everything that spews out of them expressively is enough. That’s a young person’s way of thinking about art, I guess. I’m sure I thought that way too. But you have to refine your skills and it becomes about 80 percent discipline, or at least 50 percent, and you have to know the tradition you’re writing. Think of all the great modern writers. They’re all read Tolstoy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chekhov, and they know where they come from. It’s why they can expand on what they’re doing. It’s the same thing for songwriters or musical people working in American roots.
You’ve said The List was an antidote for an era where people make music without ever learning to play an instrument.
Well, that’s the most egregious example of that.
Are you concerned about where music is going?
Well, no, because I have a daughter who is steeped in everything from Louis Prima to the Sex Pistols to Dolly Parton to Leonard Cohen. She has the most expansive musical knowledge of anyone I know and she’s a songwriter and musician and she’s immersed in that. So it’s not that it’s becoming one thing, it’s just a prevalent trend right now. But it doesn’t mean that people are giving up being real musicians.
The List ends at the start of the ’70s — if you were to create your own list leading to the present day, what would it look like?
Well, I’ve actually given some thought to that because Chelsea asked for a list. There would definitely be overlaps with my dad’s list. I would still have “Long Black Veil” on mine and probably “Motherless Children” and “Girl From the North Country.” But I grew up after ’73 and I was influenced by all the things that were there growing up in Southern California. I would have the Beatles on mine, Neil Young and probably a Springsteen song, maybe a Rolling Stones song. “What’s Going On” — Marvin Gaye … it would be different but there would be an overlap.
You’ve expressed distaste for being on the road; how have the book and music tours of the past year been for you?
I’ve got five shows this month, four last month, a few in January, so it’s not as intense as right after The List — October 2009 through October 2010 was pretty intense, we were in and out all the time. But we’ve got a 12-year-old, we’re not going to go out and leave him alone during the school year for two weeks or anything. We do these kind of strategic slides on weekends, until it’s summer and it eases up a little bit. I enjoy it. I get burnt out on going through airport security, but I enjoy the gigs.
Does performing with your husband, John Leventhal, help that?
Yeah, absolutely, particularly these duo shows where a lot of it’s driving and we get to hang out, talk, eat together. It’s a lot of fun.
I’m a huge admirer of John Leventhal’s mix of control and ability to inspire great performances. Michael Streissguth compared him to a musical version of Scorsese or Hitchcock. How much do you surrender, if anything, in the studio process and what does it mean to the music as you’ve conceived it in the songwriting process versus the finished product?
Well, that is difficult to answer, because we have a great working relationship in the studio. Surrender might not be the best word. Acquiesce might often be a better way to put it. It’s not really often that we have really diametrically opposed ideas about how to do something. He’s got better language for it than I do. He can hear voicings that I don’t hear and chords. He’s actually quite amazing, I often get awestruck at how good he is at what he does. So I feel lucky, he brings a lot to what I can do. We complement each other pretty well because we do very different things. He’s not a singer really and he doesn’t really write lyrics.
Your last two records have focused on your father’s legacy. What’s next for you — are you working on a Rosanne Cash project?
Yes, I am. You know, I wouldn’t say Black Cadillac was much about my legacy; it was about loss and mourning. But still, you’re right, peripherally it was connected to them. But yeah, I’m writing songs now for a new project, I’ve got several songs done, and I’m doing some small projects as well. I wrote the liner notes for a box set on to digital of some really old Appalachian and Southern songs. But yes, the next record’s going to be me and my songs; I couldn’t do The List 2 next.
Are you going to do the project to curate the originals from the List?
Yeah, I think that’s a good idea. Right now, I have so many ideas for projects that I’m afraid I won’t get them done before I die.
Don’t say that! But I suppose having a full plate is better than an empty horizon.
It’s exciting! You know, I never get bored. Everything’s still very exciting to me.
Early in your career, you covered John Hiatt and other young songwriters. Do you still have your ear to the wind for talent? Has anyone caught your attention?
Of course! Colin Molloy of the Decemberists I think is one of the greatest songwriters out there right now. He’s so good, in a real roots tradition, but so literate, incredibly cinematic, almost like William Blake. He has a sense of poetry but he’s really grounded in pop melodies. I think Cory Chisel has a lot of potential. He’s a brand new guy; he’s got a couple of gorgeous songs. The Civil Wars, have you heard them? My daughter, I’m really excited about. There are a lot of young people out there that are so interesting.
The Johnny Cash television show was fairly radical in the non-traditional artists it gave exposure to. Do you have any memories of that time and the creativity flowing through your father and some of those people?
Not who you would think. I was already — when Derek and the Dominoes, and Joni Mitchell, Dylan and Linda Ronstadt and all those people were on, that was my language. I was so excited, and it made me so cool in the eyes of my friends. The people who I got introduced to were more like Louis Armstrong. I remember that show well, it was beautiful and I thought, well, that’s cool, you know? I wasn’t somebody who would have found Louis Armstrong on my own at the age of 14.