It should come as no surprise to fans of Rosanne Cash that she believes “at the heart of all country music lies family, lies a devotion to exploring the boundaries of blood ties, both in performance and songwriting.” In her revealing 2010 memoir Composed, Cash acutely puts her finger on the qualities missing from modern country, finding it lacking in “desperate loss” with even the stories of family fading from sight. Where are the stories of grievous loss, dead babies, even dead dogs that inspired the epic musical storytelling of the past? While Cash is far from a pure traditionalist in her music, embracing modern textures almost from the first, she possesses keen understanding of her lineage – both as the daughter of Johnny and more broadly, the daughter of Hank Williams and Carl Perkins and Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs. All facets of Cash’s long career are fully on display on the career-spanning anthology The Essential Rosanne Cash (Columbia/Legacy 88697 82710 2) which was compiled by the artist and released on Tuesday to coincide with her 56th birthday.
Cash’s high standards and respect for the craft of songwriting has led her to be one of the few artists equally skilled as a singer/songwriter and an interpretive singer. As such, The Essential showcases both deeply personal songs written by Cash in addition to those composed by John Hiatt, Rodney Crowell, John Stewart, Steve Goodman, Tom Petty and even John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The earliest track on the collection is also its most rare. “Can I Still Believe in You” hails from Cash’s 1978 German-only debut for Ariola Records, an eponymous affair that’s remained unavailable in the CD era. Much of Cash’s sound is already intact on this song written by Rosanne and produced by her future husband, Rodney Crowell . Even early in her career, Cash had exacting standards and a sense of her musical self. A gentleman by the name of Bernie Vonficht pleaded with her to record a song called “Lucky” for the Ariola album. She refused, feeling the song totally wrong for her. Vonficht had a hit with the song, but Cash had already proven that she could stick to her guns and persevere.
The following year she was signed to Columbia, her father’s longtime label, and set out to assert her own musical identity. She and Crowell married during the mixing of Right or Wrong, and that album’s “Baby, Better Start Turnin’ ‘Em Down,” with its hint of Motown, already revealed a strong and confident voice beyond her 24 years. She had able support from Emory Gordy Jr., Brian Ahern, James Burton and even Hal Blaine, and impressed in this illustrious, diverse company.
If Right or Wrong was a triple, then Seven Year Ache, its follow-up, was a home run. Three chart-toppers are included here, two of which were written by Rosanne: the irresistibly melodic, heartbreaking title song and “Blue Moon with Heartache.” Seven Year Ache paved the way for the modern country superstar, employing 1981 production values (with synthesizers, big drum sounds and rock band backing) on a collection of future standards. Combining a punk attitude with a classic approach to songwriting, Cash showed off her ability to make personal themes ring true for a universal audience. Not every track on The Essential sound explicitly autobiographical yet most are idiosyncratic and indeed rooted in her own experiences. (Cash’s rebellious side can be heard frequently over these two discs; it’s too bad that “Second to No One” from 1985’s Rhythm and Romance wasn’t included, as it shattered some barriers when Cash sang the word “whore.” How times have changed! Still, Cash calls the album “a painful memory” despite its Grammy-winning success. ) Trivia note: Seven Year Ache was mastered shortly after John Lennon’s murder, and Rosanne had “Goodbye, John” engraved into the run-out groove of the original 25,000 LPs. Continue reading after the jump!
The Seven Year formula was adhered to closely on Somewhere in the Stars. While Cash describes the 1982 LP in Composed as “not my best work,” she still selected two singles for inclusion, Leroy Preston’s “I Wonder” and John Hiatt’s “It Hasn’t Happened Yet.” She has particular sympathy with the catchy latter song, which uses saxophones to great effect. (Charting single “Ain’t No Money” is absent.) Hiatt’s “The Way We Make a Broken Heart” gave Cash another No. 1 single in 1987; all eleven of Cash’s chart-toppers are compiled here. It features sensual accompaniment with tinkling piano that’s almost reminiscent of an uptown soul sound.
There are nods to traditional country on The Essential, including her very first duet, “No Memories Hangin’ Round,” from Right or Wrong. The third No. 1 single off Seven Year Ache, “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train,” explicitly references and updates the railroad imagery so beloved by her father, while his own “Tennessee Flat Top Box” appears in Rosanne’s rendition from King’s Record Shop. Believe it or not, Cash admits to having believed the song was traditional and was unaware when recording it that her own father was its author! (Johnny’s “Big River” was covered by Rosanne on her first Columbia LP but isn’t present here.) He finally joins her for “September When It Comes,” a co-write between Rosanne and John Leventhal from 2003’s Rules of Travel, and his deep, otherworldly voice adds grace and gravity to the beautiful track. Rosanne also added a twang to Lennon and McCartney’s relatively minor “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” and was rewarded with, yes, another No. 1 in 1989!
The Essential scores big for being a true overview of Cash’s entire career to date, encompassing her first album through her most recent, and licensing from multiple labels. After the pop gloss of many of the songs on Disc 1, we’re rewarded with the artist’s embracing of a rootsy sound with the tracks off King’s Record Shop and Interiors. Another step in an acoustic direction, Interiors was recorded as Cash’s marriage to Rodney Crowell was dissolving, and heartache is the prevailing tone of these cuts. Its lack of support from the Columbia Nashville execs, however, led to Cash’s relocation to New York and her eventual marriage to John Leventhal, co-producer of the artistically-reinvigorated The Wheel. That album was the pinnacle of Cash’s maturing songwriting, with evocative images like “The lonely road is a bodyguard,” from “Sleeping in Paris.” Thanks to the chronological format, listeners can follow the arc of her career through her music, and it’s quite a trip! Cash reconnected with her artistic muse in New York, and proves that the big city isn’t at all an unusual place for a “country” artist. The roots of her music run deeper than any label or geographic affiliation. 2009’s The List brought matters full circle, as Cash devoted that album to songs off a list given to her by her father as a musical education. Johnny’s List selections on The Essential include a rocking duet on “Sea of Heartbreak,” written by Paul Hampton and legendary lyricist Hal David, whose (90th) birthday came just one day after Rosanne’s.
With 17 of her 22 chart singles contained, The Essential is unlikely to be topped as a comprehensive collection of Rosanne Cash’s best. Vic Anesini has remastered every track with his customary flair, and the booklet is packed with essays from both Cash and her admiring ex-husband and collaborator Rodney Crowell. There’s also full discographical information with musician credits and chart positions. This is one of Legacy’s finest entries in The Essential series yet, but it’s only befitting an artist who didn’t ride her father’s coattails but rather rode her very own train.