I'll admit up front that this review is at least partially a love letter to Rosanne Cash, who has long been one of my favorite singer/songwriters. Along with a handful of others — including Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and Iris DeMent — Rosanne's vocals tend to shoot right past my critical faculties and lies themselves in my heart. I've loved that unmistakable voice, with its heartbreaking little "catch," since I first heard her. Her songwriting, distinctive from the beginning, has continued to grow in depth and insight, my admiration has continued to increase.
On this album Cash's songwriting is not at issue. As she relates in the notes, these 12 songs are taken from a list of "100 Essential Country Songs" that Johnny Cash wrote out in longhand for his then 18-year-old daughter — then more of a rock than a country music fan — as they were riding around on his tour bus back in 1973. Rosanne kept that list, and for that we can all be grateful.
The List includes songs from such country luminaries as Jimmie Rodgers (“Miss The Mississippi and You"), Hank Williams (“Take These Chains From My Heart"), Hank Cochran/Patsy Cline (“She’s Got You"), Merle Haggard (“Silver Wings"), The Carter Family (“Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow"), and Bob Dylan (“Girl From the North Country"). Some big names not normally associated with country music are on hand, most notably Bruce Springsteen, whose duet with Rosanne on “Sea of Heartbreak" is a high point. Elvis Costello on “Heartaches by the Number," Jeff Tweedy on “Long Black Veil" and Rufus Wainwright on "Silver Wings" contribute backing vocals.
Cash doesn't mimic the original versions of these songs. The arrangements by her husband and producer John Leventhal are clean and spare, showcasing Rosanne's sensitive vocals and letting the folk poetry of these classic country songs shine through. I can imagine some listeners perhaps finding these versions a bit "curatorial" in approach, but for this listener her loving and respectful treatments are captivating. I was also thrilled to read in an interview that a second album of these songs is likely to be forthcoming. That is something to look forward to — although at the same time I hope we don't have to wait too long for more of her original songwriting.
The List is a gift to lovers of great American music, from a special artist.