The List

Nov 4, 2009 at 12:00 am

It's been an especially great year for cover albums and, thus, fans of the form. But the very best has been saved for last — or at least closer to the end of the year — via this gem from Johnny's daughter, who remains probably the only music superstar progeny worthy of her surname, musically speaking. And before anyone gripes about the man in black being dragged into this discussion, it needs to be noted that this one owes a lot to the man who gave Rosanne that great last name in the first place.

In 1973, Johnny presented his rock 'n' roll kid with a list of "100 Essential Country Songs" (which, as she suggests in the liner notes, could have just as easily been called "100 Essential American Songs") that he felt every artist should know. The younger Cash held onto that list for 35 years and only now — half a decade after dad's death — has decided to reinterpret 12 of her favorites to create this heartwarming and beautiful collection.

She's hardly a stranger to great covers; in fact, the grandest irony of her entire career is that she had no idea that Johnny wrote and originally recorded "Tennessee Flat Top Box" until it became one of the two singles (John Hiatt's "The Way We Make a Broken Heart" was the other) that took her to "new country" pop superstardom in the late '80s. This time, however, it's all about legacy, and thanks to her gorgeous vocals (some of the best of the genre since Linda Ronstadt's '70s heyday) and some new arrangements by husband-producer-guitarist John Leventhal, most of these songs take on new poignancy and urgency.

"Sea of Heartbreak," for instance (featuring a guest vocal spot by Bruce Springsteen), loses the "novelty" bass hook the great Don Gibson gave it on the original hit version, thereby better capturing the underlying sorrow of the song. Sadness is also drawn out for all it's worth on her reading of Hank Williams' "Take These Chains from My Heart," making it one of the best cover versions of the song ever (and Jon Doe already seemed to have dibs on that honor with his version from earlier this year). 

Also, intentional or not, Cash and Leventhal throw little touches from their generation's songbook into some of these arrangements: A slow, groove-based "I'm Movin' On" opens with what almost sounds like a sample from Sonny & Cher's "The Beat Goes On," while the aforementioned "Sea of Heartbreak" has an intro somewhat reminiscent of Lennon's "Imagine." And a slowed-down yet still rousing "Heartaches by the Number" (featuring duet vocals with Elvis Costello) has a '70s production style that brings to mind classic stuff like "Harper Valley P.T.A." and such.

Interestingly, Cash is perhaps best on some of the very well-known material, including "She's Got You" (a song so closely associated with Patsy Cline, it's almost trademarked with the late country star's voice) and the perennial folk classic, "500 Miles," so familiar to baby boomers that it almost invites parody (see: A Mighty Wind) and even scorn. But delivered by Cash as it is here, in a stark, almost mournful version, it's suddenly beautiful, even "new" again, as, all in all, is everything here, be it Depression-era classics such as "Miss the Mississippi and You" or "Girl from the North Country," the Dylan composition that was the song Johnny recorded with the bard for Nashville Skyline — and which sorta brings this whole country-rock, Americana-traditional, and generational blend thing full circle. As Ms. Cash herself writes in the notes: "This record is truly about history, respect, family, love and legacy. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, I have arrived where I started, and I have known it for the first time."

Rosanne Cash will headline 2010's 33rd Annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival on Saturday, Jan. 30, at Hill Auditorium, 825 N. University Ave., Ann Arbor; with Doc Watson and Richie Havens; tickets on sale Dec. 1.

Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to [email protected].