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Rosanne Cash Runs Down Her Father’s List

When Cash was 18, her father (you know him as Johnny) presented her with a gift: a list of 100 essential country songs to help the budding singer-songwriter connect with and better understand the music that came before her. After holding on to it for the past few decades, Roseanne Cash decided to turn that gift into The List, her new album.

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Rosanne Cash Runs Down Her Father’s List

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Johnny Cash gave a great gift to his
daughter, my guest Rosanne Cash, when she was 18. That was back in 1973. It
maybe didn’t exactly seem like a gift at the time. It was a list of 100
essential country songs, songs he felt strongly she needed to know. She was
more focused on writing her own songs than on interpreting the songs of others,
and she succeeded in becoming known as a songwriter. Rosanne Cash recorded
several number one country hits then left Nashville and established herself as
a singer-songwriter in the world of indie rock. She’s won a Grammy and two gold
records, but now she’s returned to her father’s list and made a new album
called “The List” on which she sings 12 songs from it. Rosanne Cash is Johnny
Cash’s oldest child. Her mother was his first wife.

Let’s start with a song from the list, “Sea of Heartbreak.” Bruce Springsteen
sings with her on this one.

(Soundbite of song, “Sea of Heartbreak”)

Ms. ROSANNE CASH (Musician): (Singing) The lights in the harbor don't shine for
me. I'm like a lost ship adrift on the sea.

Ms. CASH and Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (Musician): Sea of heartbreak, lost love and
loneliness, memories of your caress, so divine I wish you were mine again my
dear. I am on this sea of tears, sea of heartbreak…

GROSS: That’s Rosanne Cash from her new CD, which is called “The List.” Rosanne
Cash, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Ms. CASH: Oh, thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Tell me why you wanted to record this record. We’ll get to the whole
list in a second, but of all the songs on the list, why “Sea of Heartbreak”?

Ms. CASH: Why “Sea of Heartbreak”? It’s kind of a perfectly constructed country
song. And it was on the list, so you know that gave me permission. And it
embodies that longing that is in so much of country music really, really well,
and beyond that, it takes a metaphor and carries it to the very end without
breaking that narrative about the metaphor, without becoming kitschy, which a
lot of songs do. And that’s kind of perfect to me. And it’s also – it makes it
a bit of a period piece because you don’t hear many modern songs that do that.
And there’s also some language in it that’s not modern, you know, when he says
divine and my dear. These are kind of old-school ways of talking, and I really
enjoy that. So it was like stepping into a period piece. At the same time, it
has the hallmark of every great song, which is that it transcends time. It has
a timeless quality to it, and it feels very modern.

GROSS: It’s amazing. The lyric was written by Hal David, who wrote the lyrics
for so many Burt Bacharach songs. So he’s not exactly Mr. Country Music,
Mr. Nashville.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASH: No. And you know, I myself thought that Don Gibson had written
because he had the early, definitive version of the song and then found out
that Hal David and Paul Hampton wrote it in New York. It was a huge surprise.

GROSS: Your father has a good recording of this.

Ms. CASH: He does. You know, I’m not being disloyal, but I have to say I still
prefer the Don Gibson version.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASH: And you know, my dad recorded his version with Tom Petty and the
Heartbreakers on “Unchained,” and he might have been a little too energized
from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, you have Bruce Springsteen singing with you on this one. Is he a
friend?

Ms. CASH: No, I couldn’t call him a friend. I’ve met him a few times over the
years, but it would be presumptuous to say he’s a friend.

GROSS: Why’d you ask him to duet on this song?

Ms. CASH: Because he’s just a dream date, Terry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASH: I mean, we knew we wanted to do a duet. So I did my part on “Sea of
Heartbreak.” We went God, who is the perfect person to ask to sing on this
song? Who’s, like, the embodiment of American romantic male voice? Well, that
would be Bruce Springsteen. So we asked him.

GROSS: And he said yes.

Ms. CASH: He said yes. I thought oh, it was a 50-50 chance Bruce will do it,
then, you know, he knew the song. He got the concept of the list. He’s so
steeped in country music anyway and roots music. So it was an easy thing for
him, I think.

GROSS: So let’s get the story of the list. Your album is called “The List,” and
there’s a story behind it. So would you tell the story?

Ms. CASH: Yeah. When I was 18 years old, I went on the road with my dad after I
graduated from high school. And we were riding on the tour bus one day, kind of
rolling through the South, and he mentioned a song. We started talking about
songs, and he mentioned one, and I said I don’t know that one. And he mentioned
another. I said I don’t know that one either, Dad, and he became very alarmed
that I didn’t know what he considered my own musical genealogy.

And I was very steeped in pop and rock music, and I grew up in Southern
California. So he spent the rest of the afternoon making a list for me, and at
the end of the day, he said this is your education. And across the top of the
page, he wrote 100 essential country songs. The list might have been better
titled 100 essential American songs because it was very comprehensive. He
covered every critical point in Southern and American music: early folk songs,
protest songs, Delta blues, Southern gospel, early country music, Appalachian.
Everything that fed into modern country music was on that list. So his overview
was really of a musicologist but formed by his instincts, you know, and just
the rhythm in his own blood.

So I realized when he gave me the list at the age of 18 that this was an
important document, and I set about learning these songs. But it took me I
think until know to realize that he was really giving me himself, a part of his
heart and soul.

GROSS: When you say you went about learning those songs, did you get the sheet
music or get the records? How did you learn them?

Ms. CASH: All I had to do was get my dad because he had them all at his
fingertips. You could say, well, how does this one go? And he’d pick up a
guitar and sing it to me, and then some I knew the records. You know, like I
had known Ray Charles’ “Take These Chains From My Heart” since childhood. I had
known Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You” since childhood. Others I found the records
for.

GROSS: So you finally realized later in life that your father had given you a
piece of himself and a piece of his own kind of genetic makeup when he gave you
this list of 100 songs.

Ms. CASH: That’s right.

GROSS: But when he gave you that list, did you immediately think thanks, Dad?
Or was it more like thanks, Dad?

Ms. CASH: Like an 18-year-old would do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. CASH: No, I – you know, if he’d given it to me even a couple years earlier,
I might have said oh, yeah, eye roll, thanks dad, but I wanted this. I wanted
him. You know, my parents were divorced. I was just socking in this great time
with my dad, who was clean and sober. So I wanted that experience of loving
what he loved and learning about his life. Also, I was just starting to write
songs. So this was a template for me. These are excellent songs. He wrote the
list as a songwriter. So I had that template for great songwriting. It was
exciting to me.

GROSS: Now, do you still have that piece of paper that the list was on?

Ms. CASH: I do. I found it again in late 2005, when I was writing the
narratives for - my last record is “Black Cadillac,” and I wrote narratives for
the show. And I found the list in 2005, and I thought well, this will make a
nice subject for a narrative for the “Black Cadillac” show, never thinking
anything more than that. And I wrote this narrative, and it started: When I was
18 years old, my dad gave me this list. Well, everybody started coming up to
me, saying where’s that list? When are you going to record that list? It became
funny.

GROSS: So what did you do with the piece of paper now? Is it, like, framed? Is
it preserved? Where do you keep it?

Ms. CASH: I keep it in my files. It’s not framed. It’s not – you know, I want
to do the right thing with the actual list at some point, but I don’t want to
just publish it on the Internet or, you know, give it away yet, partly because
I want to do Volume 2.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASH: And I don’t want anyone else to do Volume 2.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, I want to play another song from “The List,” and this is a great
song. I love this song that Patsy Cline made famous. It’s called “She’s Got
You,” and of all the songs on the list, why did you want to do this one?

Ms. CASH: Well, it’s a classic country song. Anyone who knows country music
knows this song. Unfortunately, they also know Patsy Cline’s version, which is
so iconic that I had some trouble getting past that to actually record it
myself. But you know what’s great about this song, too, is that it’s a list. In
the song is listed all the things that the other woman has. So it’s a list
within the list.

GROSS: Oh, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah, and I guess what do you do to put yourself in the mood to feel the
song? I mean, you’re married. You know what I mean? Like, you’re not a teenager
anymore. You’re married. So maybe that’s a presumptuous question. Maybe I
should just drop that because…

Ms. CASH: No, I know what you’re saying, but you know, passion is not reserved
for young people. And I think that my sensitivity to music has actually
deepened and expanded as I’ve gotten older. You add more life experience. You
know, the music gets filtered through all of that, and that’s beautiful. When I
started singing this song, like I said I had to get Patsy Cline off my shoulder
a bit to even approach the song. I mean, I even told John in the beginning, I
just can’t do it. I can’t do Patsy. You know, he said you’re not doing Patsy.
This is a great song. So once I started singing it, then it kind of dawned on
me oh, this is why this song has been covered so many times. This is a great
song.

GROSS: It is. Let’s hear it. So this is my guest, Rosanne Cash, from her new
album, “The List,” and this is “She’s Got You.”

(Soundbite of song, “She’s Got you.

Ms. CASH: (Singing) I've got your picture that you gave to me, and it's signed
with love, just like it used to be. The only thing different, the only thing
new, I've got your picture, she's got you. I've got the records that we used to
share, and they still sound the same as when you were here. The only thing
different, the only thing new, I've got the records, she's got you. I've got
your memory, or has it got me? I really don't know, but I know it won't let me
be. I've got your class ring…

GROSS: That’s my guest, Rosanne Cash, singing “She’s Got You,” a song made
famous by Patsy Cline, a song featured on Rosanne Cash’s new CD called “The
List,” which is songs selected from the list of 100 essential songs that her
father, Johnny Cash, gave to her when she was 18.

When your father gave you that list when you were 18, how deep were you into
country music?

Ms. CASH: Not very. I was, you know, president of my Beatles fan club when I
was 11.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Were you really?

Ms. CASH: Yes, I was indeed.

GROSS: Wait, is this where I ask who your favorite Beatle was?

Ms. CASH: Well, John.

GROSS: Okay, good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASH: And I – you know, I grew up in Southern California. I was very well-
versed in Southern California pop and rock and Buffalo Springfield and Neil
Young and Elton John and Janis Joplin and then Joni Mitchell, which is the
first time I realized that a woman could be a songwriter. So I had of course
heard what my parents played around the house and heard the musicians my dad
drug home off the road, and my mother listened to a lot of Ray Charles and
Marty Robbins and Patsy Cline, so I got that in by osmosis, as well. But as far
as doing a serious immersion in it like I had done with The Beatles, no, I had
not done that.

GROSS: My guest is Rosanne Cash. We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash. Her new CD, “The List,”
features 12 songs from the list of 100 essential country songs that her father,
Johnny Cash, made for her.

You’ve had this list of 100 country music songs that your father gave you since
you were 18. So you’ve had this since the early ‘70s.

Ms. CASH: ’73.

GROSS: Why now? Why record them now?

Ms. CASH: That’s a very good question. In fact, I resisted it for the first
year that John started talking about it, well, for a lot of reasons. One, I did
have a chip on my shoulder when I was younger. I’m going to do this my way,
nobody’s ever going to be able to say that I traded on my dad’s name. It was a
large shadow. I wanted out of it, and I probably – I probably carried the chip
longer than was gracious.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASH: It’s okay when you’re in your 20’s. It’s not okay when you’re in your
40’s. So it was partly that, my knee-jerk reaction against doing anything that
traded on my dad’s name. And then I started realize, this is my list. He gave
this to me. This was personal. This was like if he was a martial arts master
and was passing on a secret to his child. You know, it belongs to me. So when I
started to feel myself take possession of it psychologically, then I started
thinking about recording the songs. And the other part is I don’t think I could
have done this until I lost my parents, until they died.

GROSS: I was thinking you might feel that way because – is it because they
owned the songs?

Ms. CASH: Well, if they did, they passed them on. But it’s also because you’re
not – well, I wasn’t so interested in legacy until they were gone. I wasn’t so
interested in what they left me until they weren’t here to tell me about it.
And you know, at this point, I had a really serious health problem with myself,
a face-off with my own mortality. You start thinking about those things. What
did my parents leave me? What’s in my DNA? What am I going to leave my kids?
And these songs are part of my cells, in a way. They are part of my DNA, and
they are what I want to leave my own kids.

GROSS: You mentioned that you had your own brush with mortality, and I know
that you had brain surgery.

Ms. CASH: Right.

GROSS: How long ago was this?

Ms. CASH: It was November, 2007.

GROSS: Would you explain what the problem was that necessitated the surgery?

Ms. CASH: I had a structural abnormality in my brain I may have been born with
- my neurosurgeon wasn’t sure. And it just got worse as I got older until I was
becoming debilitated by headaches. So they didn’t really discover what it was
until 2007, earlier in 2007, and then he said, you know, there’s no advantage
in waiting to fix this. You need to take care of this. So I had brain surgery,
you know, and it’s not for the faint of heart, by the way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What did they have to do?

Ms. CASH: It’s called a decompression. So they had to kind of open up my skull
and decompress things.

GROSS: And anytime somebody enters your brain for surgery, it’s really, really
risky.

Ms. CASH: Yeah.

GROSS: Were you terrified before the surgery?

Ms. CASH: I prepared myself psychologically. I, you know, I did hypnosis tapes,
and I did just a lot of reflection and talking about it and getting prepared
because I knew how scary it was. And in fact, that’s why my neurosurgeon said
to wait, you know, six weeks or something. He said you need to prepare yourself
psychologically. So I got it when he told me that it was going to be tough, and
it was a long recovery.

So you know, I did my work enough beforehand that I walked into the OR laughing
with my anesthesiologist making jokes…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASH: …and singing “If I Only Had a Brain.”

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASH: My morbid sense of humor really got me through this, I have to say.

GROSS: What about the recovery on the other end? I mean, you’re so steeped in
your senses: you know, in writing, which you do a lot of, both songs and books
- you’re completing a memoir now - in listening, which you do a lot of, in
singing. So I mean, were your senses altered in a way that was either
interesting or disturbing after the surgery, during the period of recovery?

Ms. CASH: That’s a good question, and nobody has thought to ask me that
question, and the truth is that they were. I had the hearing of a dog for about
two months.

GROSS: Wait, what does that mean?

Ms. CASH: I mean, my hearing was so sensitive that, you know, I live in
Manhattan, I couldn’t go outside for a month it was so intense. But the thing I
was afraid of didn’t happen, which is my experience of music, and I had written
this letter to Oliver Sacks before I went into surgery. I had met him at a
party, like, the year before. And so I wrote him, and I told him my problem,
and I said: Do you think that my experience of music is going to be altered?
Will I lose my sensitivity to music or my ability to play it? And he wrote me
back the most beautiful, typewritten letter that was hand-corrected in ink, and
it basically said – he said my expertise is with the cortex, and your problem
is with the cerebellum. So I can’t really help you, but I do have an inkling of
how important this is to you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASH: I loved that. That’s the letter I’m going to frame.

GROSS: Rosanne Cash will be back in the second half of the show. Her new CD is
called “The List.” I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, “Take These Chains From My Heart”)

Ms. CASH: (Singing) Take these chains from my heart and set me free. You’ve
grown cold and no longer care for me. All my faith in you is gone, but the
heartaches linger on. Take these chains from my heart and set me free. Take
these tears from my eyes and let me see. They’re just a part of the love that
used to be…

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with Rosanne Cash. She's known
for singing her own songs, but on her new CD, she sings 12 songs from the list
of 100 essential country songs that her father Johnny Cash compiled for her. He
made that list in 1973 when she was 18 and on the road with him. When we left
off, we were talking about recovering from the brain surgery which she had two
years ago for a structural abnormality.

You know you mentioned that before the surgery you had headaches, like really
severe headaches.

Ms. CASH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I find that one time when I can't enjoy music, when I want nothing to do
with music, is when I have a bad headache.

Ms. CASH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And when I think of you going through, it was a long period, right when
you had these bad headaches.

Ms. CASH: Yeah.

GROSS: How did you do music? Did you have any room in your head where it was
pleasurable to make or listen to music?

Ms. CASH: That's interesting. I listened to a lot more classical music in the
two years before the surgery because it seemed - it was more soothing to me
and, you know, I could digest it better. But a lot of times singing, playing
music myself, I would move out of the headache. You know, it would just
dissolve. That's an interesting thing about music, you know, people say it's
very healing. It is very healing, literally.

GROSS: Well, I think we should hear another song...

Ms. CASH: Okay.

GROSS: ...from your new CD, "The List" and I thought this might be a good spot
to hear "500 Miles."

Ms. CASH: Okay.

GROSS: And I have to say, I was telling you this before we started the
interview, if I went through the rest of my life never hearing this song again,
I'd be fine I thought...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...until I heard your version. You know, I think so many of us know the
Peter, Paul and Mary version, which we’ve heard so many times.

Ms. CASH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And when I was learning folk guitar and doing a terrible job at it, this
was one of the songs that I learned to massacre, which is...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...part of the reason why I could go through the rest of my life not
hearing it again. But you do this like desolate version of it and you’re
husband...

Ms. CASH: But the lyrics are.

GROSS: Yeah. The lyrics are desolate. They are desolate, but and your husband
is playing organ behind you.

Ms. CASH: Yeah.

GROSS: And it’s this really like eerie, lonely organ. It almost sounds like
it’s being played backwards. It's so...

Ms. CASH: Yeah.

GROSS: It is so odd and it's really just a haunting version.

Ms. CASH: Well, we wanted to get it very churchy and we wanted to bring out all
of the loneliness of the lyrics, because the lyrics are really sad. And I knew
Bobby Bare's version better than I new Peter, Paul and Mary's version. And
Bobby Bare's version was much sadder and I think we even took it a step
further.

GROSS: Okay. Well, let's hear it and this is my guest Rosanne Cash singing "500
Miles." Her husband John Leventhal is playing organ behind her and he plays a
lot of the instruments and did the arranging for the CD. And it's from the
album "The List," which features songs from a list of 100 essential American
songs that her father Johnny Cash gave her when she was 18. So here's "500
Miles."

(Soundbite of song, "500 Miles")

Ms. CASH: (Singing) If you miss the train I'm on, then you'll know that I am
gone. You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles, a hundred miles, a hundred
miles, a hundred miles, 100 miles. You can hear the whistle blow a hundred
miles. Teardrops fell on Mama's note when I read the things she wrote. She said
we miss you, hon, we love you, come on home. Well I didn't have to pack. I had
it all right on my back. Now I'm 500 miles away from home

Lord I'm one. Lord I'm two. Lord I'm three. Oh, Lord I'm four. Lord I'm 500
miles away from home.

GROSS: That's Rosanne Cash from her new CD, "The List," which features songs
from a list of 100 essential that her father Johnny Cash gave her.

You know, before hearing that song, we were talking about the brain surgery
that you had.

Ms. CASH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I was wondering what you’ve turned to in recent years to just kind
of give you strength. And just to fill listeners in, it's been a difficult few
years. You lost your mother; you lost your father; you lost your stepmother,
June Carter Cash; there were three years where you could barely speak and
couldn’t sing because of polyps on your vocal cords and then there was the
brain surgery that we talked about.

It's been a rough period. And when people go through a rough time, I mean some
people turn to religion, some people turn to drugs or alcohol, some people have
nothing to turn to, some people are lost, some people find this inner strength.
Looking at your father, I mean there's been times and there were times in your
father's life when he turned to drugs or pills and, but through all his life, I
think he had a sense of Jesus in his life.

Ms. CASH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Your mother was, I think a pretty devout Catholic.

Ms. CASH: She was.

GROSS: Yeah. So what about you? Like what have you had that has kept you
through all this?

Ms. CASH: Well, I adhere to the religion of art and music and small children.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASH: The pronouncements of small children. You know, I'm not the type to
turn to religion in that way. I'm not the type to turn to drugs and alcohol,
but I do have a profound devotion to art and music - and children. And those
three things, as well as the love of my husband, who is an amazing partner and,
you know, if you ever have brain surgery, you want to call him up to do all of
the vetting of the neurosurgeons and all of that business because he makes a
great patient advocate.

GROSS: Good. If I'm ever making album, I'll call him too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASH: That's cute.

GROSS: So you mentioned, you know, art and music as what you turn to how that's
kind of your religion. So what were some of the things that you read or
listened to or watched during the period of recovery when you needed that kind
of nourishment?

Ms. CASH: Joan Didion's "Year of Magical Thinking" was great. I read the book
and I went to see Vanessa Redgrave perform it and that was...

GROSS: Wait. Let me stop you right there. That is a - I love that book. It was
so hard to read it because it’s all - it's a journal of the year she lost her
husband.

Ms. CASH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: It is so painful. So what was healing about reading that really painful
book?

Ms. CASH: Well, I loved it. I know a lot of people found it really difficult
and kind of depressing, but I loved her very meticulous documentation of the
little moments of insanity that happen during grief.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CASH: You know, that thing she said about well, it’s three hours earlier in
California. Is he dead in California yet? I had that feeling and many others
that you don’t tell people because they will think you’re nuts. And so to see
it there on the page, poetically written, it was really great for me. I love
that.

GROSS: What else?

Ms. CASH: What else? Oh, Picasso. Arvo Pärt, the Estonian musician. I went to
see his show in Paris that just, it rearranged my whole life. It was so great.
It was called "Melancholy" and it was 800 years of madness, despair and
depression in art.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASH: It was fantastic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASH: I loved it. I told you I have a morbid sense of humor. But it was
just amazing, you know, because we used to express all of these things in art,
you know, the madness and the despair and the depression; and now we just
medicate it away. But it was all there on the canvas and I just loved it.

GROSS: Oh wow. And after grieving for your parents did you go through a period
feeling like you were grieving for yourself because your brain was being
compromised, your life was in jeopardy, your ability to be who you are was in
jeopardy.

Ms. CASH: Yeah. I was angry at my parents when I had to have brain surgery,
that they weren't still around, because no matter how old you are you want you
parents when you’re going through something like that.

GROSS: Absolutely. Yeah.

Ms. CASH: And I, yeah, did I grieve for myself? No. I kind of thought well, why
not me? I have good health insurance. You know, I don’t have to show up to a 9
to 5 job. I, you know, and I didn’t have that feeling of oh, why me? I never
had that.

GROSS: You never had the feeling of being resentful or envious of everybody
else who didn’t have to go through the brain surgery that you were about to go
through?

Ms. CASH: No. I don’t do that. I don’t do comparisons because I always lose.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So that's how you feel?

Ms. CASH: Yes. That's exactly how I feel. No, but not that I always lose is
that the process of comparing yourself to someone else you’re setting yourself
up to not feel good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASH: So I don’t bother.

GROSS: My guest is Rosanne Cash. Her new CD is called "The List." We'll talk
more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash. Her new CD, "The List"
features 12 songs from the list of 100 essential country songs that her father
Johnny Cash made for her.

Getting back to the list of songs again, that your father gave you; did you
love the same songs on that list after the surgery that you loved before? Was
there any - did your taste change?

Ms. CASH: I love them more now. I love everything more now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASH: I know that sounds like a cliché but I do. But I love these songs so
much and they keep getting deeper and broader and more poetic and more full of
life for me. Every time I hear them, every time I put on one of the original
versions or I get to sing it myself, it’s all new. It's amazing that it took
this long for me to realize what was always there, you know, like T.S. Eliot
says, you return home and know it for the first time, I feel like that. I've
returned home and known it for the first time.

GROSS: I want to another song from your new album and I was thinking of "Girl
from the North Country."

Ms. CASH: Mmm.

GROSS: I think you do a beautiful job of this. Bob Dylan wrote it. It was on
his 1969 "Freewheelin'" album - 1962 I mean. What year is it? More like 62'
probably.

Ms. CASH: Oh yeah. It's earlier than 69'.

GROSS: Yeah. I think it's in 62'.

Ms. CASH: Because they did "Nashville Skyline" in 69'. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. In 69' your father recorded it with Dylan on Dylan's "Nashville
Skyline" album. So why did you choose this one for your own?

Ms. CASH: This was John's idea to do the song and I know why it's on the list
because the, you know, my dad made the list in 1973 and he had just recorded
this four years earlier with Bob - so it was still kind of fresh to him. It's
one of the newest songs on the list. And when John brought up that idea I said
oh gosh, I can't do it. It's almost sacrilegious. I, not only do I have my dad
and Bob's recorded version in my head, I have images of that session in my
head. I wasn’t at that session but there is footage of it. And it was just such
a watershed record too, you know, I became the coolest 14-year-old in the world
when my dad recorded this song with Bob Dylan and I said I just can't do that.
It’s outside of my own realm.

And John said let's listen to Bob's original version and approach it that way.
And his original version is, it's in the tradition of a classic folk song
that's rooted in Elizabethan music even. And I got to do that old folk twist of
a woman singing about another women, which was great. I loved that. And once we
listened to the original version and I could approach it like that, I went ah,
I get it. Yeah. This is gorgeous.

GROSS: It is gorgeous the way you do it so, this is Rosanne Cash singing “Girl
From The North Country” from her new album “The List.”

(Soundbite of song, “Girl From The North Country”)

Ms. ROSANNE CASH (Singer): (Singing) If you’re traveling in the north country
fair, where the winds hit heavy on the borderline, remember me to the one who
lives there, she once was a true love of mine. If you go when the snowflakes
fall, when the rivers freeze and summer ends, please see if she's wearing a
coat so warm, to keep her from the howling winds…

GROSS: That’s Rosanne Cash singing Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country,” from
her new CD “The List,” which is songs from a list of 100 great American songs,
essential country songs, that her father, Johnny Cash, gave her when she was 18
years old.

You know, I think it’s really interesting that you’re doing this album of songs
by other people because you’re best known as a singer-songwriter. You do your
own songs. And this kind of frees you up to just be the singer and the
interpreter and – an also to sing other people’s melodies which I think must be
kind of refreshing in its own way.

Ms. CASH: Yeah, it is. It is. It was a little scary at first, because I didn’t
ever want to put my voice front and center, you know, I was a songwriter that
was the torch I carried. This is an honorable profession. This is what I do.
I’m a songwriter. My voice just serves what I’m writing about. So to let all
that go, I mean, bring the sensibilities of it actually to the song choices,
but to just be the interpreter was incredibly liberating and really fun.

GROSS: You know, it’s interesting that you’ve done this album of covers, John
Doe did an album of classic country covers. Loudon Wainwright just did an album
of Charlie Poole songs. So you know - the three of you are famous as
songwriters and within a period of months you’re turning to other people’s
songs. I just find that so interesting. And all of those albums I just
mentioned are really good.

Ms. CASH: Well, there is a cannon of American music that maybe an entire
generation doesn’t know that well.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CASH: You know, people who weren’t around to hear Patsy Cline’s version of
“She’s Got You,” or a song like “Take These Chains”, or never heard Ray
Charles’ “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” or Hank Snow or any of
these people. So, I always felt like, you can’t imagine the Scots or the Irish
without Celtic music. You can’t imagine us, the Americans, without these songs.
They are so important to us. And it would be a tragedy if they were just, you
know, you had to - if they were just in a museum, if they were just archived
somewhere, if they weren’t still being performed.

GROSS: Oh, I really agree with you. When we last spoke, it was 2006 maybe, and
this was after you had started singing again after your three year bout of not
being able to sing because of polyps on your vocal chords. And in that
interview you said that when you had the polyps you vowed that if you recovered
that you would give up all the anxiety that you had surrounding singing…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …and just kind of enjoy singing and enjoy, you know, the talents that
you had. So, did that work out?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORSS: Have you been able to just - as you’ve release this album of you singing
other people’s songs, have you been able to just enjoy singing without the
attendant anxieties?

Ms. CASH: I’m laughing because I did say that, didn’t I?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Mm-hmm, you did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASH: I’m glad you reminded me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You’re welcome.

Ms. CASH: Yeah, I did give up a lot of the anxiety. I’m not a person who will
ever entirely give up anxiety, I mean it kind of fuels my – everything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASH: But I did stop the criticism. That’s what I stopped, the self
criticism. You know, if I miss a note, if I can’t sustain it as long as I want,
you know, if my diaphragm gives away or something, I’d just go well, that’s
okay, that’s all right, you know, human being here. But I enjoy it a lot more.
I do. What - I did keep that part of the promise to myself is that I got it
back and I enjoy it a lot more.

GROSS: My guest is Rosanne Cash. Her new CD is called “The List.” We’ll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash. Her new CD, “The List,”
features 12 songs from the list of 100 essential country songs that her father
Johnny Cash made for her. She’s Cash’s oldest child. Her mother was his first
wife.

Your father lived his life on stage, your mother didn’t. Where do you fit in,
in terms of comfort level on stage and in terms of like having a public
component of your life?

Ms. CASH: That’s something that I still struggle with. My daughter just made
her first record. And it’s coming out soon. She’s 27 years old and she has not
asked me for any advice, she’s wanted to do this on her own. It’s history
repeating itself. But she did call and say, Mom, how do I have a successful
career as a musician without having a public life? And it kind of broke my
heart because that was the exact question I asked at her age. And I said, I
don’t know because, you know, songs are not complete until they’re heard, you
know, you can’t just do this for your living room.

Part of doing it is putting it out there. And of course being a performer,
that’s a whole other thing. But I still do struggle with that and I guess that
I’m more comfortable - you know how Malcolm Gladwell had that 10,000 hour rule,
like if you do something 10,000 hours, you become an expert at it? I feel like
maybe I’m close to 10,000 hours.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASH: So, I’m a bit more comfortable.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASH: But you’re right. My mother was very, very private and my dad lived
out his best self on stage. So, I have both of those examples, you know, don’t
tell anybody anything, keep to yourself and take everything to the stage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Wow, that’s really confusing, isn’t it?

Ms. CASH: It is. So, I’ve had to work it out for myself. And what I do is both.
I have a great private life. I don’t, you know, divulge everything. I find that
incredibly distasteful. And I love performing.

GROSS: I’m glad you found that comfort zone for yourself, that you’ve found…

Ms. CASH: I have.

GROSS: …where the line is. I want to close with another track from “The List.”
But since I’ve chosen everything so far, I thought I’d be generous and let you
choose one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASH: Do you want something sad and slow and ballady(ph) or something a
little more up?

GROSS: I’m letting you choose.

Ms. CASH: Okay. "Motherless Children." This song is one of the oldest songs on
“The List.” And it was amazing how many people had done it. Everyone from
Billie Holiday to the Louvin Brothers to Eric Clapton. There are many different
versions, many, many, many verses, too. So, John and I had to sort through them
and kind of make it more linear, you know, just pull four verses that would
work together. And John had just lost his mother a couple of weeks before we
recorded this. So, I think we were both feeling that sense of loss and being
motherless. And I can really hear it in John’s guitar-playing in this track.

GROSS: Rosanne Cash, it’s just been wonderful to talk with you again. Thank you
so much.

Ms. CASH: It’s my pleasure, Terry. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Rosanne Cash’s new CD is called “The List.”

(Soundbite of song, "Motherless Children")

Ms. CASH: (Singing) Motherless children have a hard time when the mother is
gone. Motherless children have a hard time when the mother is gone. Motherless
children have a hard time, there’s all that weepin’ and all that cryin’.
Motherless children have a hard time when the mother is gone. Father will do
the best he can when the mother is gone. Father will do the best he can when
the mother is gone. Father will do the best he can but there’s so many things
he just don’t understand. Motherless children have a hard time when the mother
is gone.

GROSS: You can download Podcasts of our show on our Web site: freshair.npr.org.
I’m Terry Gross.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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