[Rating: 4.5 stars]
From the first luxuriant notes of “Miss The Mississippi and You,” it’s obvious that The List—culled from 100 songs Johnny Cash gave his teenage daughter Rosanne—is imbued with tremendous life force. Though obviously a look at the genre’s past, the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter interjects a sensuality and noir currency into vintage Merle Haggard, Hank Snow, Patsy Cline, Bobby Bare, Carter Family and traditional folk songs.
With bloodlines the size of telephone poles, there’s an immediacy here that speaks to inherence as much as reverence. The slinky “I’m Movin’ On” is equal parts slink and insouciant bravado, while “500 Miles” is as plaintive as any lost soul can be—the chorus counting off the hundreds stacking the weight of how far is left to go like so many logs waiting to be turned into warmth.
Along the way, Cash attracts guests of the headiest nature. The slightly rambling “Sea of Heartbreak” echoes with no less a populist troubadour/poet/rock icon than Bruce Springsteen, the doleful killin’ and consequences “Long Black Veil” features Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy cashing every check for the alt-country movement his own Uncle Tupelo started, and the chiming guitar chords and Wurlitzer puddles of Haggard’s “Silver Wings” finds Rufus Wainwright in the close harmony of the abandoned.
It’s that fluidity—to embrace the past, bring in musical guests from myriad genres and sound timeless—that marked Johnny Cash’s own vision. At a time when Bob Dylan was squarely one of “them,” the voice of a generation’s appearance on The Johnny Cash Show made it safe for everyone to appreciate his visionary words. To mark that, the matriarch of one of country music’s most storied families lifts her voice to “Girl From the North Country,” which doubles down into the Carters’ “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow.”
Cash’s deep burgundy voice has always been about the shadows emotions lurk in—and that duskiness works to her advantage. Whether embracing the cocktail realization of “She’s Got You” or the stinging, almost slapped acoustic guitar of “Motherless Children,” there’s a plangency that defies words, but ignites recognition in even the most calloused listener.
At its core, country music is about life as it’s lived, not Hallmarked for complacency. In reaching into her past, Cash troubles the water and makes peace with who she is at her genetic core. To serve it so faithfully is a marvel; to hear The List is a wonder.