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Rosanne Cash, Johnny Cash's daughter with his first wife, Vivian Liberto, is a true New Yorker, right down to coming from somewhere else (Memphis and Los Angeles, for starters) and her flair for multitasking. She has blogged for The New York Times, and will soon grace the paper's Arts & Leisure Weekend festivities with a performance and live interview moderated by house critic Jon Pareles. A week later, she plays Rubin Museum with "special guest" Loudon Wainwright, an evening of song with an overarching theme, the 54-year-old singer-songwriter explains, of "heritage."
Heritage is a huge part of The List, Cash's latest CD, released in October. When she was 18, her father gave her a list of "100 Essential Country Songs." This record covers 12 (13 if you buy it on iTunes), which leaves plenty for a follow-up, we hope. "Sea of Heartbreak," her duet with Bruce Springsteen, just received a Grammy nomination—her 10th. (She won in 1985 for "I Don't Know Why You Don't Want Me," off Rhythm & Romance.) A memoir is due in August, but it won't be her first book: The PEN member has published both an acclaimed collection of short stories and a children's book.
She found time to talk to us as well.
What did you learn from making The List?
The songs opened themselves up to me. I learned a lot about my own place in this tradition, about musical DNA, what connects me to my father and to my daughter. [Her daughter, Chelsea Crowell, also released her first CD in October.]
Our use of minor chords, for example. Why that is so moving to me and to my father and to my daughter—our use of an A-minor chord. It's like a particular way of walking, or a particular eyeshade. We all share a love of the ballad tradition. If the Barrymores were great theater actors, our family is equally connected to the ballad tradition.
I've known my whole life what a great song "Long Black Veil" is. Once I started singing it as a narrator, I saw how cinematic it was. It's a ghost story, a murder ballad, a period piece with a scaffold . . . and it resonates with people. It has an important place in the American canon.
You studied theater as a girl. Do you use that training to explore the roles in your songs?
It's like going into a tunnel. I go in so far, and John [Leventhal, her producer and husband] would go, "You can go in further. There's still light."
Will we ever see you acting?
I have to tell you, I've never found Dylan's 'Girl From the North Country' so sad before. What does it mean to you?
The part about the coat ["Please see if she has a coat so warm/To keep her from the howlin' winds"] always struck me as ineffably sad, and I always thought about my daughters. You would be thinking that if they were far away in the cold North—you'd hope she had a coat—just that sense of longing . . . that was my entry into the song.
Did recovering from brain surgery in 2007 inspire this recording?
It made it feasible for me. I did feel a sense of urgency thinking about: What do I really want to leave? What did my parents leave me? What connects me to the past and the future?
Are you making a list for your children?
I am. I have to put "Born to Run" on it, and "Gimme Shelter." My list will be different from my dad's.
Rosanne Cash appears at TimesCenter Stage January 8 as part of The New York Times' Arts & Leisure Weekend, and plays the Rubin Museum January 15