Cash’s voice has always been a deceptively potent instrument.
Andrew Mueller 2009
The surname Cash must be the mother of all mixed blessings when forging a career in country music. While it does lend anything you might do a gravitas that you’d struggle harder to acquire if born Smith, it also means that nothing you sing is ever going to be judged entirely on its own merits.
On The List, Rosanne Cash ventures wilfully and cheerfully into the formidable shadow cast by her late father. The story goes that when Rosanne was a teenager in the early 1970s, Johnny Cash became perturbed at his daughter’s seduction by The Beatles and subsequent similar pop frivolity, compiled her a list of the hundred essential country songs, and instructed her to familiarise herself with them. The List whittles Cash’s commandments down to twelve.
Aware that a country audience will be familiar with these songs – not least with her father’s versions of many of them – Cash works hard to recast them in her own image, fiddling frequently (and occasionally overly fussily) with tempos and arrangements. Harlan Howard’s Heartaches by the Number is shifted down a gear from its usual upbeat shuffle, and presented as a sinuous, snarling boogie (Elvis Costello’s backing vocals bestow additional grit). The Hal David/Paul Hampton cut Sea of Heartbreak is served up as 1970s-style Nashville countrypolitan, with backing vocals by Bruce Springsteen (it’s a definite advantage of the Cash brand that soliciting big-name collaborators is not difficult: Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy joins in on the Danny Dill/Marijohn Wilkin folk melodrama Long Black Veil, and Rufus Wainwright on Merle Haggard’s Silver Wings).
For all the labours of the guest stars, however, the most affecting entries on The List are those which make the most of Cash’s voice, as it has always been a deceptively potent instrument. Though it lacks the operatic edge of some better-known country divas (Wynette, Cline) its gentle, almost conversational tone brings a devastating matter-of-factness to the lurid grief chronicled in these songs. Her takes on Hank Williams’ Take These Chains From My Heart and Hank Cochran’s She’s Got You are sufficiently compelling that the parlour game of comparisons with other versions becomes redundant. Given the voices that have sung them before, that’s praise indeed.