Born within two years of each other, Rosanne Cash and Patty Loveless represented a country music generation embraced by radio. Since then, Cash explored deeply introspective songwriting that took her light-years away from corporate Nashville, while Pikeville native Loveless designed albums with husband/producer Emory Gordy Jr. that received widespread country acclaim before refocusing on the mountain-inspired roots music of her youth.
Now as members of a demographic that Nashville regularly shuns — female artists in their 50s — Cash and Loveless have again found common ground. For Cash, it comes with a collection of covers suggested by her legendary father, Johnny Cash. For Loveless, the link is a sequel to a hit recording of traditionally rural country inspiration.
Cash's The List, a new collaboration with her own husband/producer, John Leventhal, takes its cue from a catalogue of 100 songs termed essential by Johnny Cash. Some are country staples forever associated with the Man in Black, including the always-dramatic Long Black Veil. Her telling of the gallows tune's story line is understandably gentler than her father's version. But some neat guitar tremolo and world-weary harmonies from Wilco's Jeff Tweedy make the song's ghostly inspiration all her own.
Equally daring are grand takes on the Patsy Cline hit She's Got You and the Merle Haggard classic Silver Wings. Both tunes indicate the grand sweep of The List by showcasing a voice that conveys heartache, urgency and simple human drama in a manner that respects regal country and pop traditions.
Loveless doesn't quite go for the epic tone of The List when approaching Mountain Soul II, a sequel to 2001's Mountain Soul. That record was exquisitely timed, when renewed interest in pre-bluegrass country music was at a peak, thanks to the hit soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? But Mountain Soul II is every bit as homey as its predecessor, with acoustic arrangements that bring out the deeper contours of Loveless' singing.
The bluegrass spiritual Workin' on a Building, especially, is a work of wonders. It has support from two of the mightiest bluegrass forces on the planet, Del and Ronnie McCoury, but the gospel gusto fueling the tune belongs to Loveless alone.
Loveless and Gordy add a few fine originals, too. But the killer is a cover of Emmylou Harris' Diamond in My Crown, which is delivered as a hymn-like lament. As the vocal wail is reined in, the gospel fortitude is magnified with only organ and Harris' wildly plaintive harmonies as backdrops.