It’s one of those priceless documents that probably belongs in the Smithsonian Institute — a hand-written list on a single sheet of legal-size paper, front and back, with the heading “100 Essential Country Songs.”
It was written by Johnny Cash while on tour, back in 1973. He spent an afternoon, pencil in hand, compiling it for his 18-year-old daughter, Rosanne Cash.
And what did she do with it?
She studied it carefully and then folded it up — yes, folded it, as in put a permanent crease in it — and stuck it in a box.
“I was just thinking, ‘This is nice, I’m going to save it,’” Rosanne Cash told Metro in an interview. “I didn’t think of it being the holy grail of documents. I certainly didn’t think about that when he gave it to me at 18.
“I wasn’t thinking that Johnny Cash gave me the list. I was thinking that it was dad who gave me the list. It was a personal thing, to give me an idea about who we were as musicians.”
Cash may have looked at the list once or twice in the 30 years after her father wrote it. She only remembers keeping it in a box with other bits and pieces of memorabilia. It moved with her from California to Nashville and to her present home in New York.
A couple of years ago, Cash rediscovered the list while preparing for her Black Cadillac tour. It was time, she decided, to take some of the songs out of the box.
The result was her new CD, The List. It contains 12 songs off Johnny’s list of essentials — Miss the Mississippi and You, Motherless Children, Sea of Heartbreak (with Bruce Springsteen), Take These Chains from my Heart, I’m Movin’ On, Heartaches by the Number (with Elvis Costello), 500 Miles, Long Black Veil (with Jeff Tweedy), She’s Got You, Girl From the North Country, Silver Wings (with Rufus Wainwright) and Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow.
For whatever reasons, Cash has chosen to keep the identity of the other 88 secret, except for a few slips in interviews.
“It’ll be in my lifetime,” is the only answer she gives when asked when fans will learn the rest.
Cash has already started work on a followup to The List, which would contain another dozen or so of her father’s choices. She says it’s possible there could be a third List CD, but draws the line at that. So many of the songs simply don’t suit her voice, style or gender.
When asked, she admits that her father included some of his own songs on the list, confirming I Walk the Line as one of them.
“My dad was very humble,” she says. “He only included two of his own.”
Rosanne also also lets slip that Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land are also list members.
But it’s a tease. She won’t go further.
Cash does admit, however, to wishing she had asked her dad to revise it before he died.
“It is one of my great regrets in life that I didn’t think to ask him to update it,” she says.
When asked if anything released since 1973 that may have made an amended list, she responds with George Jones’ hit He Stopped Loving Her Today, written by Jones.
And where is the list now?
“It’s still in the box,” Cash laughs. “I haven’t put it under glass or under armed guard.”