Always Been There

Rosanne Cash, The List, and the Spirit of Southern Music


By Michael Streissguth

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In 1973, Rosanne Cash’s father gave her a list of 100 songs, many from the Southern tradition, that he felt a young musician had to know. Always Been There tells the inside story of the album that, more than thirty-five years later, resulted from “the list.”

Based on original interviews conducted in the studio, at home in New York City, and on tour in Europe, Always Been There documents a pivotal episode in Rosanne Cash’s long and fascinating career. As she, along with producer and husband John Leventhal, painstakingly reconstructs what songs made “the list” and why, we gain an unmatched understanding of a longer musican continuium that includes the Carter Family and other fabled names of the Southern pantheon and their influence on her music and writing. We also see how Leventhal’s talents as an arranger and musician pair with Rosanne’s searching vocal performances to make these old songs new again.

Always Been There tracks Rosanne Cash’s singular and storied career from her early commercial hits with albums like King’s Record Shop through her controversial split with Nashville tradition on albums like the mercurial Interiors to the sublime Black Cadillac. It paints an unforgettable portrait of Rosanne confronting music-making in the aftermath of serious brain surgery, her lifelong search for her legacy, and her unique creative partnerships.


Also by Michael Streissguth
Johnny Cash: The Biography
Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece
Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader (editor)
Voices of the Country: Interviews with Classic Country Performers
Like a Moth to a Flame: The Jim Reeves Story
Eddy Arnold: Pioneer of the Nashville Sound

To Leslie and Cate, Willie, and Emily

Movin’ On
In 2007 Rosanne Cash’s family, friends, and admirers paused and prayed or crossed their fingers when she announced on her website that she was to have major brain surgery. A fist-sized part of her brain was pushing down on her spine, and doctors planned to cut through her skull to relieve the pressure. The news was cruel and unfair. On the heels of her father’s death only four years earlier, the prospect of living without his most legitimate artistic heir or the possibility of her emerging in a sadly diminished state seemed unbearable. The only heartening news was that her condition was benign. Still, the surgery would be long and complicated.
I had only recently come back into contact with Rosanne. Starting in 2005, I had interviewed her four times—three times for a biography about her father and once for a documentary film that I coproduced on his celebrated 1968 show at Folsom Prison, which had yielded the iconic album of the same name. Our May 2007 conversation about Folsom had been the most recent and the most explosive. At first she had refused to participate, but in the middle of the night, not long after I asked her to reconsider, she had been awakened from her sleep by “Folsom Prison Blues” blaring from a passing car and through her open window. She took it as a sign, and I got the interview.
It was an earth-shaker. As we talked on camera, she celebrated the rebellion leaping from her father’s famous album and bemoaned the prison bad-man image that it cultivated. She even hummed a few bars of “Folsom,” but when I asked her about the hope that so many prisoners had invested in him, her face turned to ice. If you’ve ever seen the cover shot of her Interiors album, that’s what she looked like. “See, this is what I resist,” she said, annoyed. “This is why I don’t do this stuff and talk in interviews and participate in this kind of icon-ization and the mythmaking about my dad, because that very thing was so destructive to him. And the projections just keep piling up. It’s not just the prisoners. It’s the downtrodden, wherever they live, and the people who were seeming to turn it into a religion and making him less than human.”
Volumes of feature stories in which she bristled at the mention of her father had already tipped me off that I had to tread lightly where her father was concerned, but my previous interviews that focused strictly on him had covered some pretty jagged terrain without incident. Most notably in an essay for Annie Leibovitz’s American Music (2003), Rosanne had said that she had learned to graciously share her father. (“He belonged to more than me; he belonged to the world and to the perpetual expression of great art. He was nonlinear.”) Nonetheless, her response to what I assumed was a rather pedestrian question revealed her distaste for fueling her father’s legend. In her grasp, he was already slippery; drenching him with holy water made him all the more elusive.
Since 1979, when her irresistibly assertive vocal style and liberated lyrical themes first twisted Nashville’s arm, not only had she avoided Johnny Cash mythologizing, but she had also rejected comparisons with her father. In press interviews that attempted to make her an acorn on his tall and gnarly oak tree, she bristled. “He makes good music, there’s no denying that. But I’m not a carbon copy of him,” she protested in one of the first lengthy Rosanne Cash profiles in a national magazine. Ever the dutiful daughter, she never failed to honor her father in the press, but between the lines emerged a woman anxious to cut her own profile in the industry. “He gives me advice sometimes,” she added, “but it’s more father-daughter advice, and sometimes I take it and sometimes I don’t.”
Despite the adolescent obstinacy she displayed on the topic of her father thirty years ago, she kept her royal name after marrying her producer Rodney Crowell in 1979 and included “Big River”—a Johnny Cash composition that she performs to this day—on her first album, Right or Wrong. If her father was the world’s most famous walking contradiction, she wasn’t doing a bad job of following in his footsteps.
The flare-up about her father during our Folsom interview dazed me like a left jab, but in our conversation I regained my footing and soon realized that her interview was going to be one of the documentary’s most compelling. Her sharp insights and observations injected a scholarly tone, saving the film from the tedious remarks of a bona fide scholar. And, everyone agreed, she glowed. When we reviewed the tape, her face beamed vibrancy and beauty and deep reflection.
That’s why word of her surgery stunned me.
It was a reckoning after thirteen years of severe headaches that would come and go. For long stretches, the pain receded, and then it returned like a silence-shattering alarm. By 2005 the headaches had become constant and pervasive. The pain shot down her spine, crippling her step. She regularly developed bronchitis and pneumonia and had difficulty breathing and walking, while her neurologist insisted that unusually strong migraines were her only affliction. “I changed neurologists,” she explained, “and in two weeks he found what was wrong. As soon as he saw my MRI he started writing out referrals. He said, ‘I can’t deal with this; I’ve only seen two in my career.’”
In Zurich, 2009.
The MRI revealed that her cerebellum was being crushed and was pressing down on her brain stem because her skull was too small to accommodate it. In an apt analogy that her husband John Leventhal formulated, the cerebellum was supposed to be where North Dakota is, but it was pushed down to the Yucatán Peninsula. To correct this geographical irregularity, she and John chose a surgeon associated with Columbia University Medical Center. “He just kept stressing that this is a really difficult thing and you can’t just go in,” she says. “So I took a couple of months to prepare. I did hypnosis and these relaxation tapes, all this stuff, this preparation for surgery, so that I walked into the OR that day making jokes with the anesthesiologist. It was good. I felt well prepared, but even as much as he tried to prepare me, I don’t think I got how hard it would be because they had to remove part of my skull to let the cerebellum go back up into place.”
In preparation, Rosanne had also contacted the famed neurologist Oliver Sacks, known best for his books Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, both of which delve into the world of unusual brain conditions. She had met him at a party and admired him. So she wrote him a letter about one of her looming fears: that she would lose her interest in music or her ability to make music. In the note, she described the threat to the cerebellum and referenced Quincy Jones, who before going under for brain surgery supposedly warned the doctor not to take any songs while he was inside.
“Basically, I’m afraid of losing my tunes,” she wrote.
In time, she received a typewritten letter back from Sacks, accented with handwritten corrections. “You know your problem is with the cerebellum and my expertise is with the cortex, so I really can’t help you,” he replied. “These questions are somewhat mystical and you should definitely get an answer to them, but I don’t have an answer.” In conclusion, he wrote, “I do have an inkling of how important this is to you.”
“It was so cool,” said Rosanne.
In meetings with her surgeon, it unnerved her when he spoke about the risks of surgery. The game changes when you open the lining of the brain, he told her. Memory loss, seizures, brain swelling, or paralysis can result. He would have to carve out a matchbooksized portion of her skull to give the cerebellum room to float back into place.
On November 27, 2007, the doctor began the six-hour surgery. He joked later that he’d worn down a drill bit in trying to reach the brain, but when he placed a patch on her skull and stapled the skin on the back of her head together again, there was reason to be hopeful.
MRIs taken shortly after showed that the cerebellum had moved back to North Dakota, although the surgery was not without its short-term complications. She had developed acute hearing—like a dog’s—which transformed street noise and beating drums into an excruciating cacophony. And she experienced other temporary abnormalities. “When John started helping me to walk at the hospital, I could not figure out how you walked up a step. I stood and looked at the step, and he goes, ‘You put this foot up first....’ It was so complicated to figure out. But that kind of stuff startled me a little bit, and then I noticed my friends would tell me that I would substitute a really odd word for the right word, but they all thought it was really cute.”
In a New York Times column that Rosanne penned in the spring of 2008, she revealed that after an arduous four months of post-op restoration she was finally regaining a taste for songwriting. She took it as a sign. It was time to explore the noisy world outside again.
A few months after the column appeared, more than a year after my last contact with her, I telephoned Rosanne about the Folsom documentary, and she picked up poolside on Long Island’s North Fork. We discussed screening the film as a benefit for a nonprofit she supports and resolved to sit down for tea before the summer was gone.
A few weeks after the phone conversation, I called on her in her New York home and was relieved to see that, in the wake of surgery, she looked great. Her beguiling smile and challenging gaze intact, she told me about her new album project: The List.
I remembered The List. She had first mentioned it to me in a taxi on the way to the Lower East Side of Manhattan for that Folsom Prison interview. Despite our earlier interviews, at that point I didn’t know her that well and was groping for handles of conversation when she offered that she was working on a “cover album.” I groaned inside. “Oh great,” I thought. “One of the era’s best singer-songwriters going the torch route. What can she do with the great American composers of popular music—Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and the rest—that Carly Simon and Linda Ronstadt haven’t done already? This is how she plans to follow Rules of Travel and Black Cadillac, the two most acclaimed albums of her career?” I smiled and changed the subject. The taxi sped to our destination.
“Ah . . . the cover album,” I repeated to myself more than a year later while she poured tea. Then she made it make sense to me. She’d be covering songs from a list of seminal country, gospel, and folk songs that her father had scratched down on a piece of paper decades ago. In 1973, when it appeared to him that she was serious about the music business, he handed her the paper and said, in effect, “These you need to know.” This had to be one of the most famous lists ever, like the list of Adrian Messenger or Frank Sinatra’s little black book.
Over the years Rosanne had mentioned the list in interviews, and in 2006, when she toured in support of her Black Cadillac album, she incorporated the list into her show. “I wrote these narrative pieces that divided up the concerts. So the second narrative piece is about the list because I wanted the show not to just be about Black Cadillac, but about my entire musical ancestry and personal ancestry. I said, ‘My father made me a list when I was seventeen years old....’ So, in that way directly, The List project is coming out of Black Cadillac because after every single show people would come up to me and go, ‘When are you going to post the list?’ ‘When can I see the list?’ ‘Where are you going to record the list?’ ” Evidently, National Public Radio asked to post the list on its website, but she declined.
With her father in London, 1975.
She had some trepidation about the endeavor. “This gets me very close to Dad again,” she remarked, echoing long-held concerns. But Bruce Lundvall, the boss of her new label, Manhattan Records, had called her from his vacation and urged her to take up her father’s scroll. It’s time, he said. Her husband, John, and manager, Danny Kahn, too, were almost begging her to tackle it. “The men were ready for me to do [the album] before I was ready to do it,” Rosanne told me. “John and Danny would essentially be on the road, like the three of us, and they would be deep in conversation about what I should do. . . . Luckily, I have a good sense of humor about it, and it doesn’t threaten me really. Sometimes it rankles me because I have seen them—they would deny this—literally forget about me while they are discussing what I should do in my career. But, like I said, I don’t feel threatened. I just feel like I know I’m going to do what I want to do anyway.” John and Danny probably toasted in a bar somewhere when Rosanne consented to do The List. “All of their dreams are coming true,” she said.
But the list was missing. From the moment she conceived of the album concept, she’d begun looking in files and drawers, all the obvious places, but the piece of paper eluded her. She fretted that the record label would back off without the marketing hook that the actual list could provide, and she convinced herself that she had hidden it some years back so she couldn’t find it, a psychological ploy that would either help her sort out feelings about her father or preserve an undisturbed remnant of him that was exclusively hers.
Perhaps someone had stolen it.
She’d have to find the list. Or she had to channel the list. Or reassemble the list from memory. Or scrap the project.
Now I was hooked. Obviously, The List was no torch album. And it would raise and, perhaps, answer intriguing questions tied to Rosanne Cash’s life and career. Call it what you may, but she was flirting with returning in a substantial way to country music—the genre she had ruled and refined in the 1980s—after more than a decade of running from Nashville. Why would she look back now? And why would she walk a path so close to her father’s? To be sure, she had recorded a few duets with him—the joyful “That’s How I Got to Memphis” in 1982 and the heart-wrenching “September When It Comes” in 2003—but to the point of hurting her father’s feelings she had often skirted him in the public arena, refusing many of his requests to take the stage with him, pulling her songs out of his publishing company, telling reporters that she was most assuredly on her own journey. After thirty years of navigating around her father’s legacy and almost twenty years of muting her country music past, The List appeared to be some sort of surrender. It would never be a country album in Nashville’s current sense of the word, because husband-producer John Leventhal’s arrangements would be appropriately inventive, but it would expose deep and discernible links to a world that she had tried hard to escape. And she was still feeling the effects of major surgery. The enterprise promised to be physically and mentally draining.
From where I stood, it was an irresistible moment, a whirl in a turnstile that might determine her career’s new trajectory. In early October 2008, I sent her an e-mail proposing a documentary film. I wasn’t accustomed to asking someone’s permission to document, but director Bestor Cram and I needed her cooperation, a ticket to her world in order to gauge where she thought the album was taking her and to closely observe the nuts and bolts of record production. I held my breath. For the reasons I described earlier, she very well might have avoided an author who’d written about her father. But on a warm fall morning while I was away in the Hudson Valley with my family, I opened my e-mail on a hotel desktop and read her answer. She would cooperate.
Within a few weeks, Cram and I showed up on Rosanne’s door-step with a camera in tow and shot her discussing the list, searching for the list, and hashing out the album concept with the brass at Manhattan Records: Bruce Lundvall, Ian Ralfini, and Mike Bailey. A promising start, but a troubling economic tide told us we might not sail from port.
We were a year into a recession, but no government man or talking-head economist had the guts to admit it. Cram’s various revenue streams were evaporating, and our requests for funding were going unanswered. As the length of the days diminished with the coming of winter, so did the film’s prospects.
I began to pursue another form of documentary: this book. On a flight from Amsterdam to Washington, I drafted a proposal, which outlined the high points: Rosanne Cash had offered me unprecedented access to her recording world and opportunity for frank discussion about her place in the ballad tradition, her relationship with the Cash name and legacy, her career priorities, and her quarrelsome former marriage to country music. This was a four- to five-month period in her life that demanded to be preserved.
John Leventhal in the studio, 2009.
So I documented. During the unusually cold winter of 2008- 2009, I spent countless hours with her, mostly interviewing, but also traveling with her in Europe and observing in the recording studio while inches away she and John Leventhal negotiated the sound and the feeling of the songs that would coalesce into The List. Leventhal worried that I would learn too much about the process and, in the eyes of Rosanne’s audience and my readers, undercut the mystery and romance of this record making. He had a point. But fortunately, Rosanne calmly and firmly held the door open for me.
To me a bigger concern than Leventhal’s was my proximity to my subject. To what extent would my objectivity remain intact? It’s a question I have grappled with on other assignments, and as you will see, this endeavor was no exception. Of course, as I tell my students at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, pure objectivity does not exist—everything is processed through our own unique experiences, point of view, and biases. But nonetheless, the pursuit of objectivity is a journalist’s necessary burden. So I have the pursuit to offer the reader—as well as disclosure.
I approached Rosanne with the full knowledge that I had first been a fan. Some journalists may frown, but fandom inevitably comes first for every music writer you can name, no matter how hard-bitten and critical he or she might one day become. Before I ever owned a Johnny Cash album, I owned Rosanne Cash’s King’s Record Shop, a smash hit from 1987, and before I ever heard a contemporary Johnny Cash song on the radio, I heard the big, seductive sound of her “Seven Year Ache” in 1981, the cue for scores of men (and boys) across the country to fall in love with her. I suppose I was no exception, although in 1981 she was jockeying with Shelley West and, yes, Louise Mandrell for my affections.
So I proceeded with my mind on the music writers whom I admire, those who splash into their subjects’ worlds clutching the life preserver that is their skepticism. Perhaps Rosanne was beckoning me to dangerous shoals, but I could not resist the opportunity to explore her world, her work, and her reflections. So I carried my skepticism under my arm and walked away with a richer understanding of where Rosanne Cash stood during five icy months not so long ago.
There was one obvious question for Rosanne: why do The List when the very concept would seem to undermine the wall that delineated her from country music and from her father’s legacy? Make no mistake, when Rosanne moved from Nashville to New York in the early 1990s, she fashioned a new identity: her songwriting explored complicated emotions in a literary style; she sought out venues for her prose writing; and she commenced an education in the arts and culture that she might have received in university had she not dropped out of Vanderbilt in the late 1970s. Country music heroines just didn’t abandon the South for New York. Los Angeles might have been acceptable, but a move to New York challenged the very ethos of country music and would seem to have put a very definite distance between her and her father.
The List repertory—songs originally sung by the country-est of country troubadours, Porter Wagoner, Hank Snow, Willie Nelson, and others—would seem to take her off-script. But in light of her father’s death and her recent recordings, which have tilted toward darkness, as well as her surgery, the script is undergoing a rewrite. She’s thinking about her legacy, thinking about having some fun on record, and trying to make sense of three decades in the music business. The List is a conversation with herself.
It connects her with the music she heard as a child: her mother playing Marty Robbins, Patsy Cline, and Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds in Country Music, which fused rhythm and blues with the so-called white man’s blues. Although she cannot recall her father playing and singing in their home in Casitas Springs, California, his 1965 album Ballads of the True West is prominent in her memory. “I just [played] the record over and over and over. For some reason that record really struck me, and I think it laid this template in me for a concept record and that my entire career I’ve been trying to make a real concept record. I love concept records. . . . I’ve never really done it. I’ve never made that kind of concept record. The List is as close as I’m going to get to making a concept record.”
One could argue that her 2006 album Black Cadillac qualified in the concept category, since it considered the losses she had experienced when her father, mother, and stepmother died in the space of two years. Mourning snakes through Black Cadillac and through her live performances, which draw liberally from songs on that album. But at least for the moment she seems ready to lighten up the considerable dark streaks that run through her entire catalog of writing, not just Black Cadillac. “Up until this point my repertoire has been weighted heavily towards the melancholy and loss. There are great exceptions like ‘The Wheel,’ like ‘I Was Watching You,’ even though on the surface it’s about loss, it’s about the survival of love. . . . So, looking at The List and what songs I choose to do, John and I have had this discussion about the melancholy songs and not so much in terms of ‘Oh, look at the body of your work,’ but in terms of the balance of this record. How much of it should be these kind of stark, melancholy ballads and how much of it should be the swampy, sexy, upbeat kind of stuff. And I am getting drawn more towards stuff like ‘Take These Chains’ and ‘Big River’ and stuff that has more of a liberating feel to it. I could be wrong. It could end up being weighted heavily towards the melancholy because that could just be part of my nature, which it is. So we’ll see.”
In the studio, 2009.
As she flirts with the joyful, The List may also be a public reckoning with the distance between her father and her. Those tart comments in the 1980s have given way to mellowing. “I was so defiant: want to do it myself, don’t want anybody’s help, don’t want to be associated, don’t want anybody to know that I am related. And I know it hurt him. But I wasn’t confident enough or experienced enough [to distance myself from him] gracefully. I was a kid, and I look at [husband] John or other people who had to work for their parents for a short time in their twenties and how they broke away from that to become themselves. I think this is a natural process, just because that [in my case] it played out in public doesn’t mean it’s unusual. It’s really natural. So I ended up giving myself a break about it, but I did feel really bad about it. I didn’t ask him for advice until I was in my early forties, and he would never give it unless you asked for it, so I wasted a lot of time not hearing some stuff that was probably good.”
So perhaps Johnny Cash’s list offers its own advice, and perhaps Rosanne’s List offers reparation. But if the past is any gauge, cynics will see the album as Rosanne’s own appropriation, an exploitation to further her career. “The unintended reactions and people’s bizarre interpretations are going to happen no matter what I do,” she counters, “so if I spend my time worrying about that I would be paralyzed. You know, I’m sure a lot of people thought that Black Cadillac was exploitative, that it was trying to capitalize on my parents’ death, which is so insulting. But, you know, I went to Europe when Black Cadillac came out, and it so happened that the release of Black Cadillac in Europe coincided with the release of the movie [Walk the Line] in Europe, and I didn’t intend it that way, it just happened, and so of course I was accused of trying to ride the coattails of that. It’s so frustrating. But the other day I just happened to see this New York Times interview I did when it came out, and they said something about that, and I said, ‘Well, you know, am I supposed to stop working because everybody’s lost their mind?’ ”
Such criticism has snagged Rosanne in the past three decades, as have divorce, drug abuse, death, and self-doubt, but for the mo-ment,


On Sale
Dec 15, 2009
Page Count
256 pages
Da Capo Press

Michael Streissguth

About the Author

Highways and Heartaches is Michael Streissguth’s tenth book. Among the others are the critically acclaimed Johnny Cash: The Biography and Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris and the Renegades of Nashville, which was named one of the top music books of 2013 by Rolling Stone.  He has written and directed three documentary films, including the award-winning Nighthawks on the Blue Highway and The Tower Road Bus and served as a program advisor on Ken Burns’ PBS documentary series Country Music (2019).  His writing has appeared in the Washington Post MagazineIrish TimesMojoBluegrass Unlimited, Living Blues, the Journal of Country Music, and other outlets, and he frequently contributes to  He is a professor in the Department of Communications and Film Studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York.


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