The Musical Education by Rosanne Cash

One of the saddest musical truths in the current climate is the quality of the songs being recorded and released. Musical fans of today are used to style outweighing substance in order to make money. The need to be bigger, sell more, and attract as wide a variety of fans as possible has taken its toll. Instead of music that matters we are left with two-bit crap suffocated by radio friendly production sung by singers whose vocals are no more than the product of computer software. Realness in music (all genres not just country) is little more than a distant memory.

We’ve gotten so caught up in the latest fads and media bombardment that we don’t even notice what’s become of music. The public at large is so used to what’s being turned out by the major record labels that I’m afraid most people wouldn’t recognize a well-written song when they hear it. What’s missing are those truly great songwriters who treat music as an art form. The likes of Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran will never be seen again and that is a shame.

I have my grandfather to thank for beating good music into my blood. He taught me the ins and outs of what constitutes quality and exposed my young ears to artists who matter. It was from him that I first was turned on to Kris Kristofferson and his songbook, The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and countless others. He got me into country music in a backwards sort of way, Linda Ronstadt and The Eagles are not strict country singers even though both have made their marks on the genre. I remember watching the Statler Brothers’ variety show on TNN with my grandfather when I was a child and viewing Barbara Mandrell’s final concert back in 1997. I didn’t get it at the time; what kid would? I thought the Statler Brothers’ show was boring and unexciting but it gave me a musical education most children of the 90s didn’t get.

Around ten years ago, when my grandfather was cleaning out his house, he wanted to throw out his collection of vinyl records. His saying has always been – “when in doubt, throw it out.” I remember many fights over this and he finally gave in. I am now the owner of his collection. It has nothing in it by way of country music but the rock and roll education it provides is worth so much to me.

For years I’ve been one of the masses, caught up in the music of the time regardless of quality. That is no way to live. Of late I’ve found two country music blogs that I read faithfully. Each offer a critical take on the current country music climate and each ha changed my perceptions of modern country music. They’ve gotten me to think about the music in a different way – less of a fan and more of a critic. This shift in my thinking has altered what records I choose to buy and exposed flaws I never allowed myself to see.

Another cementing of that shift occurred the day before Halloween when I had the pleasure of seeing Rosanne Cash in concert. The event came as a surprise. She was playing in a very small performance hall not too far from my home on Massachusetts’ South Shore. When the article popped into the newspaper I couldn’t not go — what fool would pass up this opportunity?

On tour in support of her just-released memoir and last year’s critically acclaimed The List, Cash sang through her catalog of music and took the audience on a journey exploring not just her personal history but the history of music in general. She sang eight of the songs found on The List, a CD compiled from a list of 100 essential country songs her father gave her at 18. At first I became worried we wouldn’t get to hear songs from her back catalog but she found time to play classics that included “Runaway Train,” “Tennessee Flat-Top Box,” and “Seven Year Ache” as well as selected tracks from Black Cadillac and The Wheel.

The centerpiece of the show was the presentation of the music. She was backed solely by her husband, John Leventhal, on guitar. The sparse accompaniment showcased not only Cash’s crystal clear voice but also the lyrics. I may be 22, in my rock concert prime, but to be able to hear a singer and understand what they are singing is a gift. Cash is brilliant for knowing that a little bit goes so much further than walls of sound reverberating off each concertgoer’s ear drums. The mark of astute singers is when they know how best to showcase their voices and songs. Not everyone is meant to sing in an arena or play to 90,000 fans in a football stadium. Some require a quieter listening minus the distraction of everyone standing the whole time. Cash is one of those people.

She reminded me why I love country music to begin with – the rich history and the songs. Country music has produced some of the most well-written songs ever conceived. Truth is hard to convey lyrically but most country songwriters have done it, time and time again. A highlight of the concert came when Cash read a passage from her memoir, Composed, that talked about revisiting an old project she created when she was seven about similes and metaphors. She had written down the metaphor, “A lonely road is a bodyguard.”  Cash took that line and added it to a song she was writing, which ended up as “Sleeping in Paris” from her album The Wheel.

I’m continually amazed at writers who have the gift of contorting language and of putting phrases together that make you think. The songwriters of today have much to learn from people like Cash; most of today’s songs won’t be around even five years from now. Artists should be striving for creating classics as opposed to hits of the moment. That’s where the long careers are.

The other highlight of the night was when Cash talked about racking her brain to figure out what might have been the 101st song on her father’s list. She found a great one…Bobby Gentry’s classic “Ode to Billie Joe.”

A lot of people will write off Cash for the recent comments she made to incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner, comments in which she criticized his use of her father’s name as a punch line. I find it sad that comments she makes outweigh respect for her music. People are entitled to believe whatever they want and all she was doing was defending her father’s legacy against someone she felt was pigeonholing him as a Republican. She’s come to her father’s defense before when similar comments were made in 2008. Someone has to uphold his legacy and it might as well be his most famous daughter.

Her standing up for her father’s legacy doesn’t change the fact that Cash is a very gifted songwriter and performer and she put on one heck of a great concert last week.

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