500 Miles, by Roseanne Cash

My wife Lynn and I both love music, and we love our all too few lazy Sunday mornings when we can relax around the house together, drink coffee, read the newspaper and listen to anything from Nanci Griffith to Van Morrison, from the Dave Brubeck Quartet to Michael Franti and Spearhead.

Not all of our tastes overlap though. Lynn is a wonderful singer, and she has a hard time even being in the same room with me if I am listening to music that has screaming guitars or vocals, or if someone is singing in a flat, monotone or dissonant voice (you know who you are, Lou Reed!). I have never cared for new age music, or the soundtrack for a broadway show I have never seen.

We are lucky though. Our tastes are similar much more often than not. We like a lot of the same music, and we like to talk about music. For some reason, the issue of cover songs comes up quite a bit. We both agree. For a cover song to be truly worthwhile, the new version should innovate on the original version. A new interpretation should be offered that reflects the world view and experiences of a different artist without being so different from the original that all connection between the two, beyond the lyrics and the melodic theme, is lost.

Some cover songs that come to mind that I love include Brown Eyed Girl by Everclear, Friend of the Devil by Lyle Lovett, or Little Wing by Stevie Ray Vaughan. Those are just a few of the ones I love. I won’t mention any of the cover songs I don’t love, but suffice to say there are several. Many, many several.

One of the cover songs that Lynn and I both love is “500 Miles” by Rosanne Cash, from her amazing 2009 album The List. We love this song. Our children love this song. Every time this song comes on we pause. We smile. It is nostalgic without being hokey, sweet without being syrupy. It is as perfectly produced and arranged as any recording I have ever heard (and yes, that includes “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes“). It brings peace.

The List is an album of covers of great Americana and country western songs that were part of a list of 100 great such songs her father Johnny Cash made for her when she turned 18 as required listening. The List is homage to great music of the past, and a loving tribute to her father.

(I tried to find a photo of the list that Johnny Cash made for his daughter, but she wisely has kept it, and the contents of the list, to herself. Maybe she plans to release more “List” albums. I hope so.)

Though it has always sounded much older to me, “500 Miles” was originally released in 1961, and it is a simple story of someone missing home, from far away.

“If you miss the train I’m on, you’ll know that I am gone
You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles
A hundred miles, a hundred miles, a hundred miles, one hundred miles
You can hear the whistle blow, a hundred miles”

Is this person talking to a parent? A spouse? I don’t think it matters, they are talking to someone who they love, someone who they miss.

“Teardrops fell on momma’s note
When I read the things she wrote
She said “we miss you hon’, we love you
Come on home “Well I didn’t have to pack 
I had it all right on my back
Now I’m five hundred miles away from home”

Rosanne Cash recorded “500 Miles” and the entire The List album with husband, producer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Leventhal, and he plays every instrument on the recording. The song begins with a beautifully sad, lonesome organ, and the instruments build from there. Bass, to acoustic guitar, to percussion.

“Lord I’m one,
Lord I’m two,
Lord I’m three,
Lord I’m four
Lord I’m five hundred miles away from home”

Maybe you know this song. Maybe you have heard Peter, Paul and Mary sing “500 Miles,” or maybe you heard it sung by Justin Timberlake in the brilliant movie Inside Lewin Davis. Maybe you have never heard it before, and yet it sounds instantly recognizable. Familiar. Comfortable.

“All these years and all these roads
Never led me back to you
I’m always five hundred miles away from home
Away from home, away home
Always out here on my own
I’m still five hundred miles away from home
I’m still five hundred miles away from home.”

Yes, this is a great song, but it is Leventhal’s production and Cash’s vocal performance that really elevates this recording to something that deserves a place on a blog called 1PerfectSong. This is not a carbon copy of the original, and this is not something so far-off it is barely recognizable. Rosanne Cash’s version of “500 Miles” is incredibly beautiful, a little sad, and is one of the finest cover songs I have ever heard.

I think Lynn would agree, as we often enjoy listening to “500 Miles” while relaxing at home. With a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning. Together.

“500 Miles”
Written by Heddy West
Performed by Rosanne Cash
Released October 6, 2009

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