Given her magnificent songwriting talents, it’s often too easy to overlook the fact that Rosanne Cash is a superior interpretive singer. Her latest album, The List, serves as an immediate reminder that she is among the most thoughtful, most intuitive vocalists of her generation. What elevates Cash’s project above the recent slate of covers albums is its concept: She selected the material from a list that her father gave her back in 1973 of what he deemed 100 essential country songs. The quality, diversity, and breadth of these songs confirm that Johnny Cash was a country music historian of the purest sort, and his list has certainly informed his daughter’s dead-on instincts.
There are some familiar classics on The List, with Cash turning in a understated reading of Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You” and a subversive rendition of “Long Black Veil,” a standard perhaps best known for the version on her father’s seminal At Folsom Prison. But the record truly takes off when Cash approaches some more unexpected, less threadbare cuts. Her reading of Bobby Bare’s “500 Miles (Railroader’s Lament)” is stunning in its melancholy and soulfulness, while her take on Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” is haunting and sounds every bit as canonical a country song as “Heartaches by the Number” or “Miss the Mississippi and You.” But perhaps the finest moment here is Cash’s bluesy rendition of the public domain “Motherless Children,” which would have fit seamlessly on her last album, the extraordinary grief cycle Black Cadillac.
While the album would have benefitted from a few more uptempo cuts, there’s no faulting the arrangements that Cash and her husband/producer John Leventhal have crafted here. They manage to be respectful of the songs’ original melodies and chord progressions without being overly reverential. Cash has ample room to interpret the material and Leventhal, for his part, is given the chance to showcase his formidable guitar chops. If not as revelatory as Black Cadillac or Interiors, Cash’s two unqualified masterpieces, The List still pulls off a rare feat: It’s a covers album that stands as an essential addition to an artist’s catalogue.