Fresh Air's summer music interviews: Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week, we're featuring some of our favorite music interviews from our archive. Today, we'll hear an interview with singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash. She started out recording country music, had several No. 1 hits and won a Grammy but then left Nashville and established herself as a singer-songwriter in the world of indie rock. Since then, Cash has worked across many musical genres, including country, rock, folk, pop and American roots. She's won four Grammys and was nominated for 12 others. In 1973, when she was 18, her father, Johnny Cash, gave her a list of 100 essential country songs he thought she needed to know. At the time, she was more interested in writing her own songs than interpreting the songs of others. But in 2009, she returned to her father's list and recorded 12 of the songs on it. I spoke with her when that album, called "The List," was released. We started with a song from the album, a song called "Sea Of Heartbreak." Bruce Springsteen sings on this one.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEA OF HEARTBREAK")
ROSANNE CASH: (Singing) The lights in the harbor don't shine for me. And I'm like a lost ship adrift on the sea...
ROSANNE CASH AND BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) The sea of heartbreak, lost love and loneliness, memories of your caress, so divine, I wish you were mine again, my dear. I'm on the sea of tears, the sea of heartbreak
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Rosanne Cash, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
CASH: Well, 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?"?
CASH: Why this - 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's - 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 (laughter).
CASH: No. And, you know, I myself thought that Don Gibson had written it - 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.
CASH: He does. You know, not being disloyal, but I have to say, I still prefer the Don Gibson version. 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.
GROSS: Now you have Bruce Springsteen singing with you on this one. Is he a friend?
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 did you ask him to duet on this song?
CASH: Because he's just a dream date, Terry.
CASH: We knew we wanted to do a duet, so I did my part on "Sea Of Heartbreak." We go, God, who's 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.
CASH: He said yes. I thought, oh, there's a 50/50 chance Bruce will do it. And then, you know, he knew the song. He'd 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?
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 now 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?
CASH: All I had to do was get my dad (laughter) 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 "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. But when he gave you that list, did you immediately think, thanks, Dad, or was it more like, thanks, Dad?
CASH: Like an 18-year-old would do?
CASH: No, I - you know, if he had 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?
CASH: I do. I found it again in 2000 - late 2005, when I was writing the narratives for my last record. It was "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?
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.
CASH: And I don't want anyone else to do Volume 2.
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?
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.
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...
GROSS: You're not a teenager anymore. You're married, so - well, maybe that's a presumptuous question. Maybe I should just drop that 'cause...
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. So once I started singing it, I - and it kind of dawned on me. Oh, this is why this song has been covered so many times. This is a great song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE'S GOT YOU")
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 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?
CASH: Not very. I was, you know, president of my Beatles fan club when I was 11.
GROSS: (Laughter) Really?
CASH: (Laughter) Yes, I was, indeed. And I, like, you know...
GROSS: Is this where I ask who your favorite Beatle was?
CASH: Well, John (laughter).
GROSS: OK, good (laughter).
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 ROSANNE CASH SONG, "MOTHERLESS CHILDREN")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash. We spoke in 2009 when she released her album "The List." It featured 12 songs from the list of 100 essential country songs that her father, Johnny Cash, made for her.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: 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.
GROSS: Why now? Why record them now?
CASH: Oh. 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 am 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 carried the chip longer than was gracious (laughter). It's OK when you're in your 20s. It's not OK when you're in your 40s. So it was partly that, my knee-jerk reaction against doing anything that traded on my dad's name. Then I started to 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?
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 myself, you know, 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.
GROSS: How long ago was this?
CASH: It was November 27.
GROSS: Would you explain what the problem was that necessitated the surgery?
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. And, you know, it's not for the faint of heart, by the way (laughter).
GROSS: And any time somebody enters your brain for surgery, it's really, really risky.
GROSS: Were you terrified before the surgery?
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 (laughter) and singing "If I Only Had A Brain."
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, in - you know, in writing, which you do a lot of, both songs and books. You're completing a memoir now.
GROSS: 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?
CASH: Oh, 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 (laughter).
GROSS: Wait. What does that mean? That...
CASH: I mean, it was - 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 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, my - 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.
CASH: I loved that. That's the letter I'm going to frame.
GROSS: Singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash, recorded in 2009. We'll hear more of our interview after a break, as we continue our weeklong series of some of our favorite interviews with musicians from the archive. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISS THE MISSISSIPPI AND YOU")
CASH: (Singing) I'm growing tired of the big-city lights, tired of the glamor and tired of the sights. In all of my dreams, I am roaming once more back to my home on the old river shore. I am sad and weary, far away from home. Miss the Mississippi and you, dear. Days are dark and dreary everywhere I roam. Miss the Mississippi and you. Roaming the wide...
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of my interview with singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash, known for her work in country indie rock, folk and American roots music. She's been awarded Grammys and Gold Records and has been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. We spoke in 2009, when her album, "The List," was released. It featured 12 songs from the list of a hundred essential country songs that her father, Johnny Cash, compiled for her. He made it in 1973, when she was 18 and on the road with him. When we left off, we were talking about how she had recovered from brain surgery she had undergone to correct a structural abnormality. The surgery was in 2007, a couple of years before our interview was recorded.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: You know, you mentioned that before the surgery, you had headaches, like, really severe headaches. I find that the one time when I can't enjoy music, when I want nothing to do with music is when I have a bad headache. And when I think of you going through - was it long period, right, when you had these bad headaches? How did you do music? Did you have any room in your head where it was pleasurable to make or listen to music?
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 from your new CD, "The List." And I thought this might be a good spot to hear "500 Miles." And I have to say - I was telling you this before we started the interview - if I went through the rest of my life and every hearing this song again, I'd be fine, I thought, until I heard your version. You know, I think so many of us know the Peter, Paul and Mary version, which we heard so many times. 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 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...
CASH: Yeah. The lyrics are desolate.
GROSS: They are desolate, but - and your husband is playing organ behind you. And it's this really, like, eerie, lonely organ. It almost sounds like it's being played backwards. It's just so odd. And it's really just a haunting version.
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 Bear's version better than I knew Peter, Paul and Mary's version. And Bobby Bear's version was much sadder, and I think we even took it a step further.
GROSS: OK. 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. It's from the album "The List," which features songs from a list of a hundred essential American songs that her father, Johnny Cash, gave her when she was 18. So here's "500 Miles."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "500 MILES")
CASH: (Singing) If you miss the train I'm on, then you'll know that I have 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 momma's note when I read the things she ruled. 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. But I'm one more down. Lord, I'm one. Lord, I'm two. Lord, I'm three. Lord, I'm four. Lord, I'm 500 miles away from home.
GROSS: That's Rosanne Cash from her CD, "The List," which features songs from a list of a hundred essential songs that her father, Johnny Cash, gave her. You know, before hearing that song, we were talking about the brain surgery that you had. 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 rough times, 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. Your mother was, I think, a pretty devout Catholic.
CASH: She was.
GROSS: Yeah. So what about you? Like, what have you had that has kept you - got you through all of this?
CASH: Well, I adhere to the religion of art and music and small children (laughter) - the pronouncements of small children. I, 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 'cause he makes a great patient advocate. So...
GROSS: Good. If I'm ever making an album, I'm going to call him, too.
CASH: Oh. That's cute.
GROSS: So you mentioned, you know, art and music as what you turn to as, like - 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?
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: Oh, wait. Let me stop you right there.
GROSS: That is a - I love that book. It was so hard to read it 'cause it's all - it's a journal of the year she lost her husband. It is so painful. So when - what was healing about reading that really painful book?
CASH: Well, I loved it. I found - 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 happened during grief. You know, that thing she said about, well, it's 3 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, I - it was really great for me. I loved that.
GROSS: What else?
CASH: What else? Oh, Picasso. Arvo Part, the Estonian musician. I went to see a show in Paris that just - it rearranged my whole life. It was so great. It was called "Melancolie," and it was 800 years of madness, despair and depression in art.
CASH: It was fantastic.
CASH: I loved it. I told you, I have a morbid sense of humor.
CASH: 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. Did you - 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?
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 your parents when you're going through...
CASH: ...Something like that.
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, it - 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?
CASH: Mmm, no. I don't do that. I don't do comparisons 'cause I always lose.
GROSS: Is that how you feel?
CASH: Yes, that's exactly how I feel.
CASH: No, but not that I always lose. It's that if - the process of comparing yourself to someone else, you're setting yourself up to not feel good. So I don't bother.
GROSS: 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?
CASH: Mmm. I love them more now. I love everything more now. I know that sounds like a cliche, 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 said, 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: My guest is Rosanne Cash. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROSANNE CASH SONG, "CHANGE PARTNERS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Rosanne Cash. She's known for singing her own songs, but she released a CD called "The List" on which she sang some of the songs from the list of 100 essential songs that her father, Johnny Cash, made for her back in 1973 when she was 18. We spoke when the album "The List" was released in 2009.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: I want to play another song from your new album, and I was thinking of "Girl From The North Country." 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. And...
CASH: Yeah, it's earlier than '69.
GROSS: Yeah, I think it's, like, '62.
CASH: 'Cause they did "Nashville Skyline" in '69.
GROSS: That was '69, yeah.
GROSS: So in '69, your father recorded it with Dylan on Dylan's "Nashville Skyline" album. So why did you choose this one for your own?
CASH: This was John's idea to do this song. And I know why it's on the list - because, 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. 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 woman, which was great. I loved that. And once we listened to the original version and I could approach it like that, I went, oh, I get it. Yeah. This is gorgeous.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY")
CASH: (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 has 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 also to sing other people's melodies, which I think must be kind of refreshing in its own way.
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, bringing 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.
CASH: Well, there is a cannon of American music that maybe an entire generation doesn't know that well, 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 cords. 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...
GROSS: ...And just kind of enjoy singing and enjoy, you know, the talents that you had. So did that work out? Have you been able to just...
GROSS: As you've released this album of you singing other people's songs, have you been able to just enjoy singing without the attendant anxieties?
CASH: I'm laughing because I did say that, didn't I (laughter)?
GROSS: You did.
CASH: I'm glad you reminded me (laughter).
GROSS: You're welcome.
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...
CASH: ...My everything (laughter). 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 OK. That's all right, you know? Human being here. But I enjoy it a lot more. I do. 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. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROSANNE CASH SONG, "SEVEN YEAR ACHE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to an interview from our archive with singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash. We spoke in 2009 when she released her album "The List," featuring 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. She's Cash's oldest child. Her mother was his first wife.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Your father lived his life onstage; your mother didn't. Where do you fit in in terms of comfort level onstage and in terms of, like, having a public component of your life?
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. It's - 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 the - 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.
CASH: So I'm a bit more comfortable. But you're right. My mother was very, very private, and my dad lived out his best self onstage. So I have both of those examples, you know? Don't tell anybody anything, keep to yourself, and take everything to the stage.
GROSS: Wow. That's really confusing, isn't it?
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: Well, I'm glad you found that comfort zone for yourself, that you found 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.
CASH: Do you want something sad and slow and ballad-y (ph) or something a little more up?
GROSS: I'm letting you choose.
CASH: OK. "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.
CASH: It's my pleasure, Terry. Thank you for having me.
GROSS: My interview with singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash was recorded in 2009.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTHERLESS CHILDREN")
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 weeping and all that crying. 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: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, more favorite music interviews from the FRESH AIR archive. We'll hear Smokey Robinson talking about writing hits like "Shop Around" and "You Really Got A Hold On Me" and starting Motown with Berry Gordy, and Isaac Hayes talking about writing the hit "Soul Man" for Sam & Dave and writing and performing the theme for "Shaft." I hope you'll join us. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTHERLESS CHILDREN")
CASH: (Singing) People say a sister will do when the mother is gone. People say a sister will do when the mother is gone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.