Rosanne Cash is no longer a competitor on Billboard's country charts, as she was between 1979 and 1990 when she had 21 Top 40 country singles, including 11 No. 1s. But she is still making great country music. This year's Country Music Critics Poll named her the third best female vocalist in country music and voted her new release, The List, the third best album of the year. And she has advice for her younger colleagues still on the country charts.
"The death of experimentation is the death of art," she says over the phone from her home in New York. "Even when I was having country hits, I always felt encouraged to experiment. First and foremost that encouragement came from myself. I wanted to keep expanding, becoming a better writer, a better artist. I wasn't interested in finding a formula and sticking to it. That would have felt like a factory job."
Of course, she had a terrific role model for experimenting. Her father Johnny was always trying something new, whether it was a live album in a prison, a concept album about American Indians, recording songs by a young folk singer named Bob Dylan or adding mariachi horns to "Ring of Fire." Johnny brought Rosanne an autographed photo of The Beatles, and the daughter was abashed to realize that her father had broader musical tastes than she did. When she joined his tour in 1973, the summer after she graduated from high school, he gave her a list of 100 essential country songs to expand her horizons.
"When he gave me the list," she admits, "I was shut down. I was only listening to rock—he was more open-minded than I was at that time. He said, 'Listen to these songs—these are your DNA.' The Byrds and the Burritos were my reintroduction to country music, and my dad's list came soon after that. By the time I made my first record, I was totally there. 'No Memories Hangin' Around' is a straight-up country record. I remember Emmylou [Harris] saying, 'That's the best record I've heard in a long time.' "
That first American album, 1979's Right or Wrong, included that duet with Bobby Bare, but it also included feisty feminist declarations backed by insistent electric guitars and drums at a time when those weren't the norms in Nashville. People forget that the loud guitars didn't matter as much as a spirit of experimentation, built soundly on tradition. An artist, Cash claims, needs both to escape the industry formula.
"Part of the problem," she adds, "is a lot of artists borrow from a tradition they haven't bothered to study. It always shocks me to hear artists say, 'I don't listen to anyone else,' or 'I don't listen to anything outside my genre.' How can you know yourself if you don't know your own culture? How can you sing a ballad if you haven't listened to Elizabethan and Appalachian ballads?
"The fact that my father gave me this list meant everything. It gave me a template for excellence. You want to know what a great song sounds like? Listen to 'Long Black Veil' or 'Girl From the North Country.' Those songs are cinematic. They paint a landscape and tell a story. They were an education—they gave me a background. You have to know what you're changing before you change it."