Music: Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal

Oct 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Elianne Halbersberg



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John Leventhal focuses on his musical gifts rather than technology.

John Leventhal focuses on his musical gifts rather than technology.

Leventhal and Cash agree that he had to “push” her to try certain songs, not so much because of the arrangements, but because of their classic status. “‘She's Got You’ intimidated me because Patsy Cline's voice is so iconic and in my ear,” says Cash. “At the beginning, I thought, ‘I can't do this,’ and I set myself up, but John kept pushing. It was like we had to denude ourselves of these versions and figure out why they are great songs. ‘Girl From North Country’ — my dad and Bob Dylan's version is such a part of my formative life, and I said, ‘I can't; it's almost sacrilegious.’ So John said, ‘Go to Bob's original version and approach it from there.’

“We wanted to acknowledge the original and most definitive versions of the songs, and with respect to that kind of let it go,” she continues. “There's no need to rewrite these songs, so we were respectful of melody and form, why they were on the list and what I could bring to them as a singer. A great song deserves many interpretations. For example, the sultry undertow and twist that John put into ‘Take These Chains’ brought urbanity to it. I'm honored to stand alongside Ray Charles' version, although 92 percent of people will prefer his and eight percent will say, ‘Oh, she did a nice job!’”

Four of the tracks — “Sea of Heartbreak,” “Heartaches by the Number,” “Long Black Veil” and “Silver Wings” — feature guest vocalists Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy and Rufus Wainwright, respectively. Costello's track was recorded in the studio — “He's a good friend and lives around the corner,” says Cash. The other three were done via Internet files, something Leventhal had dealt with on occasion, but never to the extent involved in making The List.

The irony of using the latest technology to record songs that date back as far as the 1920s is hard to miss, but Leventhal says it wasn't even a thought. “I wasn't trying to make the record sound like ‘old classics,’” he says. “But if it's perceived as having that dimension, I would love that because it's how my mind works. I have a deep love of so many genres of music, and nothing makes me happier than listening to two hours of George Jones. But I'm not interested in doing a stylized homage to any of it, and I don't like when people do it because you can never re-create an old classic. So the fun part is how to re-imagine them in a respectful way of the old tradition without trying to reconstruct it. Sometimes it's as specific as how to do a Merle Haggard song like a Jimmy Webb song; sometimes it's just to jar yourself out of predictability, and with ‘Silver Wings’ it worked. Or to take ‘Miss the Mississippi and You’ and make it swing, or a Hank Cochran song like ‘She's Got You’ and ignore the chord changes for half a verse. I have lots of tricks and pathways. That was the challenge and fun, and for it to still have that sense of timelessness to it would be great.

“Hand in hand with that, I don't let technology take over,” Leventhal continues. “I use a little compression and a little reverb, like they had when the record was made. I'm not trying to capture the old sound, just that old spirit, and again it comes down to Rosanne's vocal performance.”

The last time Cash and Leventhal spoke to Mix (June 2003 , regarding the album Rules of Travel), Cash had just been through a series of career and personal ups and downs. Six years later, much has changed but again there has been adversity, including her 2007 brain surgery and, between 2003 and 2005, the loss of her parents (Johnny Cash and Vivian Liberto) and stepmother (June Carter Cash). Cash explored loss and grief on her last album, Black Cadillac, and decided to step away from those themes with The List. The new album, however, still retains a certain sadness.

“I think that's definitive of those songs,” she says. “There's not a whole lot of happy ones. From Delta blues to Appalachian music, it's all fraught with melancholy, and that's why country music plays such a great service. We can relate it to our own lives, into our art and music, and it can be helpful to us. I see no upside to avoiding the sadness of these songs. ‘Motherless Children’ is the most painful song and also a period piece, so approaching it was like stepping into a time and place that don't exist anymore. A lot of them are period pieces, even ‘She's Got You’ — the list of things, class rings, records — are dated to a period in time, and I loved mirroring that content in the context of a list.”

Lists are a connecting thread on the album: the list of songs her father gave her, the list of songs that made the album, the list that every family has and how that list becomes its legacy. “That opens a question,” she says. “What is important enough to pass on to our children? Do I save this list and pass it on to my children or make my own list? What is my list? My albums? They're the list I made without knowing I was making a list. We devalue those lists but they are important. It's who we are.”

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