The collection of mostly blues-influenced country songs flowed off the Eccles Center stage one after the other. Clad in refreshingly atypical garb, they remained familiar nevertheless. And, as a southern-music cultural-history lesson, Rosanne Cash is definitely my kind of schoolmarm.
With most of the featured tunes off of her latest album, "The List," the music was accompanied by those quick intakes of breath and nodding of heads that comes when specific moments are regained from one’s past. "Oh yeah, I remember who I was when I first heard that one!"
The conception story behind why a successful singer/songwriter would cover material written by others at this point in her career begins back when Rosanne, fresh from high school and out on the road with her famous father, discovered herself to be totally unfamiliar with many of the songs he spoke of as they gobbled up miles between gigs on their tour bus.
Afraid his daughter was in danger of losing out on the ethnomusicology of both her region and family, the iconic Johnny Cash spent the rest of the day with pencil in hand assembling a list of what he considered the 100 essential country songs. Luckily for us, the list stayed with her through the roller-coaster ride that has defined her life.
Culling a dozen of these "essentials" for her new album, Ms. Cash, along with her producer-arranger-musician husband John Leventhal, revamped the selected tunes to better suit her musical sensibility. Well, suffice to say, they nailed it!
It took everything I had to lip-synch rather than clumsily attempt to harmonize aloud as the sound waves took to roost in my inner ear. I owed that much to those in my immediate vicinity. From the opening strains of Hank Snow’s "I’m Moving On," I was putty.
Its sophistication having escaped me previously, this was a music I came to only after moving to Utah and acquiring a gig at KMOR, a country station in Salt Lake. I had deemed both its content and form to be somewhat unworthy of my folk, blues, jazz, and rock-infested ears. The word "inexplicable" comes to mind.
What is referred to as the "big bang" of modern country music took place in Bristol, Tennessee, in early August of 1927 when Victor Talking Machine Company producer Ralph Peer recorded both The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Two songs on "The List" celebrate those now-legendary musical catalogs.
Although the song was not written by "the blue yodeler," Jimmie Rodgers was the first to record "Miss the Mississippi and You" and Cash’s laconic waltz-time rendition perfectly fitted the occasion.
The included Carter Family tune she learned from her aunt Helen, older sister of her stepmother, June Carter Cash, and daughter of "Mother Maybelle," the matriarch of the clan and member of the original trio that journeyed to Bristol where destiny awaited. "Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow" is Rosanne’s loving tribute to that part of her extended family.
Growing up surrounded by such legends of American music no doubt aided her in this current tour and the labor of love that was the album itself. It also had to be a hoot for the many top-shelf luminaries who joined her on the recording: Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Rufus Wainwright and Jeff Tweedy.
The old traditional gospel spiritual "Motherless Children," also first recorded in 1927 by Blind Willie Johnson and the Rev. Gary Davis, got a rousing rendition from Cash and the very tasteful five-piece outfit she had playing behind her. And when she broke into "The lights in the harbor don’t shine for me," everyone knew "Sea of Heartbreak" was afoot.
And it’s not like other classics on the set-list didn’t take turns blowing the faithful away. Although Hank Williams and Ray Charles each made definitive recordings of "Take These Chains From My Heart," this bunch also had little trouble taking the extended metaphor to the brink.
The Harlan Howard-penned "Heartaches By the Number" was another crowd pleaser as was her version of the Dylan tune her father and "his Bobness" had recorded as a duet back in the ’60s, "Girl From the North Country." Her take on "500 Miles" harkened less to the Kingston Trio and more toward Bobby Bare which was a good thing.
A bit of comic relief snuck into the Patsy Cline arrangement of Hank Cochran’s "She’s Got You" when Cash momentarily forgot the line to the verse she had already settled into. The night was all about humor and, although she included other great songs from her catalog, utmost respect for "The List."
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.
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