Rosanne Cash Honors History of ‘The List’
When Rosanne Cash was 18 years old, her dad gave her a list of what he deemed the '100 Essential Country Songs.' Johnny's little girl's latest album is her interpretation of 12 of those tunes, honoring her famous father's musical inspiration.
'The List' hits stores Tuesday (Oct. 6). Listen to the album, track-by-track, here, and read below as Rosanne gives us a history lesson behind each song.
'MISS THE MISSISSIPPI AND YOU' (Billy Halley)
Jimmie Rodgers, known as "The Singing Brakeman," was the founding father of country music. Born in 1897 in Meridian, Miss., Rodgers wrote many of his most famous songs including 'Blue Yodel,' 'Waiting for a Train' and 'Any Old Time.' But 'Miss the Mississippi and You' was penned by the little-remembered Billy Halley – not to be confused with Bill Haley, of 'Rock Around the Clock' fame.
Rodgers contracted tuberculosis while in his twenties and sang of his condition on a 1931 recording, 'T.B. Blues.' But the demands of his occupations – first as a railroad worker, then as a traveling entertainer and recording artist – rarely if ever allowed him the rest and care he needed to recover from the disease. In Rodgers' rendition, these real-life circumstances add greater poignancy to Halley's song:
Roaming the wide world over
Always alone and blue, so blue
I am sad and weary, longing to go home
Yes, I miss the Mississippi and you...
Jimmie Rodgers had less than a year to live when he recorded 'Miss the Mississippi and You' in New York on Aug. 29, 1932 with a country/jazz band that included two fiddles, guitar, piano, and clarinet. The song was issued on the Victor label on Dec. 2, 1932; Jimmie Rodgers died May 26, 1933 at the age of 35.
'MOTHERLESS CHILDREN' (Public Domain, arr. by Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal)
'Motherless Children' was the blues before there was The Blues: a song that powerfully expressed the emotions of the blues but predates the codification of the twelve-bar blues form. In most versions, including the present recording, 'Motherless Children' is sung in an A-A-B-A form but does not change chords in the familiar blues pattern.
We don't know who, if anyone wrote 'Motherless Children' but it has been recorded by innumerable artists including the Carter Family in 1929. Lesley Riddle, a black blues singer and guitarist, accompanied A.P. Carter on several of the latter's song-collecting forays -- and it's likely that Riddle was the source of Carter Family songs like 'Cannonball Blues' and 'Motherless Children.'
By the late Twenties, 'Motherless Children' was well established in the repertoire of both white and black musicians. Blind Willie Johnson's haunting version from 1927 (mislabeled 'Mother's Children Have a Hard Time') inspired both Eric Clapton's 1974 recording (on his best-selling album 461 'Ocean Boulevard') and the Steve Miller Band's weirdly atmospheric rendition on 'Your Saving Grace' (1968).
'SEA OF HEARTBREAK' (Hal David & Paul Hampton)
In a tribute from the Country Music Hall of Fame, Stacey Wolfe wrote that Don Gibson (1928–2003) was responsible "for writing at least three of the most famous songs in country music history, for helping to define the sound and studio style of modern country music, and for releasing more than eighty charted records between 1956 and 1980."
Gibson's remarkable track record makes it ironic that he didn't write 'Sea of Heartbreak' – a No. 2 Country and No. 21 Pop charter, and the second-biggest pop crossover hit of his long career (after 'Oh Lonesome Me'). The song was not a product of Nashville's Music Row in Nashville but the work of New York pop lyricist Hal David (stepping out from his legendary partnership with Burt Bacharach, inaugurated in 1956) and a far less–renowned co–writer, Paul Hampton.
'TAKE THESE CHAINS FROM MY HEART' (Fred Rose & Hy Heath)
On Sept. 23, 1952, 'Take These Chains from My Heart' became the last song ever recorded by Hank Williams. "Unlike some of [Fred] Rose's songs, this was one that Hank might well have written, and he made it into one of his finest performances," wrote Colin Escott. "As the final note faded, Hank Williams' recording career ended." Williams died Jan. 1, 1953, and Escott notes that "after 'Your Cheatin' Heart' and 'Kaw-Liga' descended the charts, 'Take These Chains From My Heart' was the last song of any quality" that MGM had left in the vaults. It was released on April 24, 1953, and became Hank Williams' last No. 1 hit on June 6."
A decade later, Ray Charles scored a No. 8 Pop hit with his version of 'Take These Chains From My Heart' when it was released as a single from 'Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vol. 2' – Ray's second No. 1 album of country material.
'I'M MOVIN' ON' (Hank Snow)
In March 1950, Hank Snow was a 35-year-old country singer with just one Top Ten hit ('Marriage Vow') to his credit after 14 years as an RCA Victor recording artist. Although he enjoyed consistent popularity as a live performer, Snow was in danger of losing both his record deal and his radio exposure on the Grand Ole Opry when he entered a Nashville recording studio for one more shot at the gold (record) ring. Snow thought he had a song to match the occasion, a jaunty kiss-off to a former lover entitled 'I'm Movin' On.'
Released in May 1950, 'I'm Movin' On' began a 44-week chart run in June and became the first of Hank Snow's seven No. 1 Country hits, holding down the top spot for an astonishing 21 weeks. The song saved Hank's record contract (he remained an RCA artist for the next 35 years) and his position with the Opry. It also inspired some 60 cover versions, from a contemporaneous parody by Homer & Jethro to a version cut by contemporary roots-rocker Chuck Profit in 2007 for a Jack Daniel's/NASCAR TV commercial.
'HEARTACHES BY THE NUMBER' (Harlan Howard)
One of most gifted and most successful songwriters in the history of country music, Harlan Howard was born Sept. 8, 1927 to Appalachian migrant parents so poor they couldn't afford to raise him (the boy grew up living with a series of foster families in rural Michigan). At seventeen, Harlan enlisted in the Army where fellow soldiers taught him a few basic chords on a borrowed guitar during paratrooper training at Fort Benning, Georgia.
"I got two hit titles out of the Army," Howard told author Nicholas Dawidoff, decades later. '''Heartaches By the Number,' because everything in the Army is by the number, and I turned 'above and beyond the call of duty' into 'Above and Beyond the Call of Love.' You take things that are part of your life and turn 'em into love songs." (All quotes taken from 'In The Country of Country: People and Places in American Music' by Nicholas Dawidoff, published 1997 by Pantheon Books.)
A former roommate of Hank Williams, Ray Price had scored his first No. 1 country hit in July 1956 with 'Crazy Arms.' Howard sent him three songs, one of which was 'Heartaches by the Number.'
By late 1959, Price's recording of the song was still hanging on the country chart (having peaked at No. 2) while Guy Mitchell's version reached No. 1 on the pop Hot 100. Harlan Howard was "the only forklift driver in America who could switch on his car radio during the drive home from work, press all five preset station buttons, and hear a song he'd written playing on every one."
'500 MILES' (Hedy West)
'500 Miles' is one of those songs that have been performed so many times and for so many years that one might expect it to be credited as 'Traditional,' perhaps with an arranger credit added. But in fact most recordings rightly credit a real person, Hedy West, as the composer of '500 Miles.'
The first recording of '500 Miles' was not by its composer but by the Journeymen on their 1961 Capitol album, 'The Journeymen Sing American Ballads.' This little-remembered folk-revival trio included Mamas & Papas founder John Phillips and Scott McKenzie of future 'San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)' fame. On '500 Miles,' writer/researcher Jim Nolan notes, "Phillips claimed a co-copyright for a song that he amended slightly but did not actually write." Almost simultaneously, '500 Miles' was recorded by the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Kingston Trio and the Brothers Four.
In 1963, the folk-influenced country singer Bobby Bare scored one of the biggest crossover hits of his career with his version of '500 Miles,' which breached the Top Ten on both the Pop and Country charts. This time, the co-writing credits (for Bare and fiddler Curley Williams, along with Hedy West) were somewhat justified by the extensively rewritten lyrics and Bare's spoken-word interlude.
'LONG BLACK VEIL' (Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill)
Nashville songwriters Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill composed "Long Black Veil' in 1959 -- yet its language, imagery, and atmosphere could be those of a century-old folk ballad. Accused of a murder 'on a cold dark night...'neath the town hall light,' the narrator can't bear to reveal his alibi:
The judge said, 'Son, what is your alibi
If you were somewhere else, then you won't have to die.'
I spoke not a word, though it meant my life
For I'd been in the arms of my best friend's wife...
After the accused is hanged for a crime he didn't commit, his lover keeps his memory alive:
She walks these hills in a long black veil
She visits my grave when the night winds wail
Nobody knows, nobody sees,
Nobody knows but me...
Wilkin and Dill cited various inspirations for 'Long Black Veil,' including Red Foley' recording of 'God Walks These Hills With Me'; and the legend of 'The Lady in Black,' the veiled woman who for decades visited Rudolph Valentino's grave on Aug. 23, the anniversary of his death. Or perhaps the song was the writers' response to the incipient folk revival: The Kingston Trio's 'Tom Dooley' was the No. 1 record of 1958, and the following year eighteen-year-old Joan Baez made her first appearance at the Newport Folk Festival.
Marijohn Wilkin had earlier arranged a date to pitch new songs to country singer Lefty Frizzell on March 3, 1959 and brought 'The Long Black Veil' to the meeting just hours after its completion. Frizzell recorded the song for Columbia on the very same day; released as a single, it peaked at No. 6 on the country chart and established a new folk-oriented style for a singer previously renown for his hardcore honky-tonk songs.
'Long Black Veil' became a standard of the music later dubbed 'Americana.' Johnny Cash first cut 'Long Black Veil' for the 1965 album Orange Blossom Special. He reprised the song in countless live performances -- most famously on his definitive live album of 1968, 'Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison,' and later in a duet with Joni Mitchell on his ABC network television show.
'SHE'S GOT YOU' (Hank Cochran)
It wasn't her first hit – that was 'Walking After Midnight' (No. 2 Country/No. 12 Pop in 1957). It wasn't her most famous song – that was 'Crazy' by Willie Nelson, from 1961, one of the most-played records in American jukebox history. But there is something about Hank Cochran's 'She's Got You' that is the quintessence of the art of Patsy Cline. It may be the subtle shifts from major to minor, the way her voice moves from its moody lower register to the pained yet somehow defiant high notes, or Cochran's enumeration of the once-treasured objects (photographs, record albums) whose meaning is transformed after love has gone. 'She's Got You' is a classic performance.
"[Patsy] liked songwriters,' legendary tunesmith Harlan Howard recalls. "Patsy loved Hank Cochran, Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Mel Tillis, and me because we were lighthearted, not too serious. All of us were always getting divorced because you can't be at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge every night missing dinner and stay married."
'GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY' (Bob Dylan)
We'll probably never know just whom Bob Dylan had in mind when he wrote 'Girl From The North Country' in late 1962:
If you're travelin' in the north country fair,
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline,
Remember me to one who lives there,
For she once was a true love of mine...
One claimant is Echo Helstrom, Dylan's high school sweetheart in Hibbing, Minn., when he was still Robert Zimmerman. Another is Bonnie Beecher, the singer's girlfriend during his brief tenure at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, who later became an actress and the paramour of Hugh Romney a/k/a Wavy Gravy of Woodstock Festival fame. In his detailed Dylan song study Revolution In The Air, Clinton Heylin notes that during live performances in 1978 Dylan variously introduced 'Girl From The North Country' as a song about "a girl who left me to be a movie star," "the first girl that ever broke my heart [and] left me for an older man," and "the first girl I ever loved, [who] is here in the house tonight."
Dylan's lyrical refrain of "Remember me to one who lives there/she once was a true love of mine" was taken directly from 'Scarborough Fair.' Simon & Garfunkel sang the same words on their version of 'Scarborough Fair,' from the 1966 album 'Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.'
In February 1969, Johnny Cash joined the Nashville recording sessions for Bob Dylan's ninth studio album 'Nashville Skyline.' A marathon of duet recordings ensued – including attempts at 'I Walk the Line,' 'One Too Many Mornings,' and 'You Are My Sunshine,' among many other titles – but only 'Girl From The North Country' made the final cut. It became the lead track on 'Nashville Skyline,' and Cash's free-verse poem, 'Of Bob Dylan,' served as the album's liner notes (later winning a Grammy Award for the author).
'SILVER WINGS' (Merle Haggard)
In the five years spanning 1965–1970, Merle Haggard placed thirteen songs in the Top Five of the Billboard country singles chart. 'Silver Wings' wasn't one of them – in fact, the song wasn't even released as a single. But this poignant mid-tempo song of lost love, with its indelible melody and dark-toned string arrangement, would become a perennial favorite of the artist and his fans. To quote a later Hag album title, 'Silver Wings' is one of those "songs I'll always sing."
'Silver Wings' first appeared on the 1969 Capitol album, 'A Portrait of Merle Haggard.' One of six full-length discs he released that year, Portrait "captured Hag when his gifts as a singer and songwriter were at their peak," wrote critic Mark Deming. "Three of Haggard's finest songs appear on this set – 'Silver Wings,' 'Hungry Eyes,' and 'Workin' Man Blues' – and most country artists would be happy to cut three tunes this strong during the course of their career..."
Bluegrass veteran Earl Scruggs was among the first to cover 'Silver Wings,' on his 1972 album 'I Saw the Light with Some Help from My Friends.' As for the song's composer, he's returned to 'Silver Wings' repeatedly over the decades, including it on several live albums and numerous compilations. In 1999, Merle Haggard recorded yet another 'Silver Wings' – this time as a duet with pop star Jewel – for the two-CD retrospective For the Record: 43 Legendary Hits.
'BURY ME UNDER THE WEEPING WILLOW' (A.P. Carter)
The Carter Family was the First Family of country music, and Alvin Pleasant 'A.P.' Carter was its patriarch and driving force. Born in 1891 in Maces Spring, Virginia, he grew up hearing traditional songs sung by his mother, Molly Bays Carter. By 1915, when A.P. married Sara Elizabeth Dougherty (born 1898 in Copper Creek, Virginia), he'd been traveling the South and collecting songs for a decade or more. (According to legend, A.P. was wandering through Wise County, Virginia and heard his future bride singing 'Engine 143.') The original Carter Family was comprised of A.P., Sara, and Sara's first cousin Maybelle Addington Carter.
On Aug. 1, 1927, in a converted furniture store at 408 State Street, the Carter Family played its first recording session – and 'Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow' was the first of six songs recorded that day. In his liner notes for The Bristol Sessions (Country Music Foundation, 1987), author and researcher Charles Wolfe describes it as simply "a nineteenth-century song widely known in the mountains."
But like the other titles chosen by the Carters for that historic first session, 'Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow' "showcased the clear, unrefined conviction in Sara's singing," notes Nicholas Dawidoff. "When she sang about abandoned children who 'once had Mother's hand to smooth their golden curls,' her sincerity was obvious and even if you didn't known that she had been orphaned herself, the effect was very moving."
Maybelle Carter's future son-in-law Johnny Cash later wrote: "If you listen to the early hillbilly recordings, basically you find that the singers were barely singing over the instruments. The Carter style was built around the vocals and incorporated them into the instrumental background, usually made up of the basic three-chord structure ... In essence, the Carter Family violated the main traditions of vocal and instrumental music, but in doing so created a whole new style and a whole new sound."