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(Soundbite of music)

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Rosanne Cash has a new album in which she sings one of the more famous lines in country music.

(Soundbite of song, "Sea Of Heartbreak")

Ms. ROSANNE CASH (Country music artist): (Singing) The lights in the harbor don't shine for me.

INSKEEP: Many artists have recorded this song over half a century and we're going to listen this morning to the many ways it's changed. The song is called "Sea of Heartbreak." Rosanne Cash sings it with Bruce Springsteen.

(Soundbite of song, "Sea Of Heartbreak")

Ms. CASH and Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (Singer/songwriter): (Singing) The sea of heartbreak, lost love and loneliness, memories of your caress so divine…

INSKEEP: The song is on Rosanne Cash's album, "The List." The album title refers to a list of timeless songs made years ago by her father, Johnny Cash.

Ms. CASH: I was out on the road with him and he mentioned a song while we were riding on the tour bus and I said, I don't know that one. And he mentioned another and I said, I don't know that one either, Dad. And he got very alarmed. I was so steeped in the Beatles and Buffalo Springfield and he thought I was missing something essential about my own musical genealogy. So he spent the rest of the day making this list.

INSKEEP: "Sea of Heartbreak" made the list, co-authored by the same songwriter who made hits like "Walk on By." Its first recording came in 1961. It was by the country star Don Gibson.

Ms. CASH: I think he was a bit tortured and he had somewhat of a difficult life. And all of his experience and his longing and his own heartbreak is really apparent in his vocal. And the way he kind of hums into the first line, you know, and throughout the song is so beautiful.

(Soundbite of song, "Sea Of Heartbreak")

Mr. DON GIBSON (Music Artist): Hum, hum. The lights in the harbor, bom, bom, bom, don't shine for me.

Ms. CASH: It uses a metaphor and it keeps that metaphor all the way through. And many songs that have tried to do that, you know, kind of fall over into kitsch trying to do that.

INSKEEP: They get ridiculous after a while.

Ms. CASH: They get ridiculous, right, it becomes a parity. This song starts with that metaphor, of sailing on the sea of heartbreak, and it uses it to absolute perfect effect — you know, The lights in the harbor don't shine for me. Oh, god. It just breaks your heart.

(Soundbite of song, "Sea Of Heartbreak")

Mr. GIBSON: (Singing) This sea of heartbreak, lost love and loneliness…

Ms. CASH: But, you know, there are some other really interesting versions, Steve. I don't know if you've heard The Searcher's version.

INSKEEP: I have heard The Searcher's version.

Ms. CASH: It's beautiful.

(Soundbite of song, "Sea Of Heartbreak")

The Searchers (Musical Group): (Singing) Sea of heartbreak, lost love and loneliness, memories of your…

INSKEEP: You like that with the harmonies kind of trailing behind the singer almost?

Ms. CASH: I do. It's interesting. Everybody wants to reinterpret that low male voice on the Gibson record in some way.

INSKEEP: Jimmy Buffett sings it and it sounds to me like a Caribbean church hymn.

(Soundbite of song, "Sea Of Heartbreak")

Ms. CASH: Yeah, it even has steel drum on it.

INSKEEP: Yeah, yeah.

Ms. CASH: Perhaps a mistake.

INSKEEP: Well, I know I like it. But he really slows it down.

Ms. CASH: He really slows it down, but I think it's slowed down a bit much. They have to kind of drag over those phrases.

(Soundbite of song, "Sea Of Heartbreak")

Mr. JIMMY BUFFETT (Music artist): (Singing) Oh, what I'd give to sail back to shore, back to your arms once more.

INSKEEP: Now when I think about the way that your father, Johnny Cash, recorded this same song, "Sea of Heartbreak," I almost want to use the word resolute. He sounds resolute with the tempo that he chooses and the way that he sings it.

Ms. CASH: I always thought his version was a little aggressive. You know, he was recording with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and I think maybe he was a bit too energized by them.

(Soundbite of song, "Sea Of Heartbreak")

Mr. JOHNNY CASH (Musical artist) and Mr. TOM PETTY (Musical artist): (Singing) The sea of heartbreak, lost love and loneliness, memories of your caress so divine, how I wish you were mine again my dear. I am on this sea of tears. Sea of heartbreak.

INSKEEP: You mentioned that you think your father might have been affected by collaborating with another musician, and of course you collaborate here, not only with your husband, John Leventhal, who produces and plays guitar, but you also bring in Bruce Springsteen to sing some harmonies.

Ms. CASH: Yeah, I couldn't find anybody good, so I got Bruce.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASH: You know, I wanted to do this song as a duet and it was John's idea to ask Bruce. And I thought, you know, maybe there's a 50-50 chance Bruce will do it. He doesn't do that many duets. But he said yes right away, and of course, he knew the song. He's very steeped in country and roots music. And when John put the vocals together finally he said, my God, it's so romantic. You know, this is my own husband talking.

(Soundbite of song, "Sea Of Heartbreak")

Ms. CASH and Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Sea of heartbreak…

Ms. CASH: Bruce — who knew he was such a good country crooner?

(Soundbite of song, "Sea Of Heartbreak")

Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) What I'd give to sail back to shore, back to your arms once more.

Ms. CASH: We made this song even more introspective than, I think, the Don Gibson version.

INSKEEP: Did you experiment with different tempos, instrumentations, ways to play this; given that there are so many different versions of it?

Ms. CASH: Yes, John wrote the arrangement for this, and he actually wrote four different arrangements before we got to this one. And it was just torturing him. And then he went to the studio alone one night to work on it. I mean it was really keeping him up. And he came home and he said, I've got it, and his face was just lit up.

(Soundbite of song, "Sea Of Heartbreak")

Ms. CASH: (Singing) Come to my rescue, oh, come here to me.

Ms. CASH and Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Take me and keep me away from the sea.

INSKEEP: What do you think your father might have thought of this version had he heard it?

Ms. CASH: I think my dad would have been so proud. You know, I spent my life as a songwriter, sometimes pushing away this music. And I wish he could see me embrace it so fully.

(Soundbite of song, "Sea Of Heartbreak")

Ms. CASH and Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) …and loneliness memories of your caress so divine. How I wish you were mine again my dear…

INSKEEP: You can hear all of Rosanne Cash's "The List" at npr.org.

(Soundbite of song, "Sea Of Heartbreak")

Ms. CASH: (Singing) Sea of heartbreak…

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Sea Of Heartbreak")

Ms. CASH and Mr. SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Sea of heartbreak…

INSKEEP: I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

(Soundbite of song, "Sea Of Heartbreak")

Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) The sea of heartbreak.

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