Rosanne Cash – “Sea of Heartbreak”
1. By now, Rosanne Cash’s new record The List has been pored over by critics, previewed by NPR, and released a week ago. Her renditions of songs from her father’s list of 100 essential songs provide new insight into classic American standards, with warm production by her husband, John Leventhal. One of these songs, Don Gibson’s “Sea of Heartbreak”, was also covered by her father on his second American Recordings release Unchained. The two versions of Gibson’s terribly lonely classic are very different, but both seem to serve the song equally well. Rosanne brings in Bruce Springsteen to assist on background vocals, while her father had Tom Petty (and the Heartbreakers) backing him on much of that entire record. As for whose version is better? That is up to you to decide.
2. Johnny Cash’s work with Rick Rubin stands as a testament to both artist and producer, with Cash’s strong baritone hovering over Rubin’s crisp, acoustic based arrangements. Petty’s drawled count-off leads into a jangly rendition with all the American Recordings’ hallmarks – triangle, layered acoustic guitars, and booming piano fills. Petty has always been underrated as a background singer, a role he displayed on Bob Dylan’s 1986 True Confessions tour, where he and his band opened for the legend, then served as his backing band. His thin tenor lilts over Cash’s recitation, while Benmont Tench’s organ provides a perfect warmth to the track. Rubin, who also produced Petty’s Wildflowers, provides a similar sound here, with the bright accompaniment a worthy foil to Cash’s unmistakable voice.
3. Leventhal and Rosanne take a different approach, with an airy keyboard and a twangy, reverb-heavy guitar providing the only accompaniment before Rosanne’s distinctive alto breaks the ethereal mood. Bruce’s voice is in full croon mode that he showed on Magic‘s “Girls in Their Summer Clothes”, more deep-vibrato Roy Orbison than the gritty howl that Springsteen fans are used to. A change of chords on the chorus creates a descending, tension-building pattern that echo the narrator’s desperation. Springsteen’s solo turn on the bridge over a lightly strummed guitar makes it a true duet, rather than just a background cameo.
4. It is hard to pick a favorite of these two tunes. Rosanne’s version is more adult contemporary, similar to a rendition that Sting might turn out if he were prone to covering American classics. Her father’s version is more of an update of his traditional country sound mixed with the Traveling Wilburys (of which Petty was an integral part). Maybe both can be enjoyed without picking a favorite, but in case you haven’t heard either, listen to them below and let me know which version you favor in the comments.