It’s all about the song

Deborah Feingold photo
The Arts in Southold Town brings singer/songwriter Rosanne Cash to the Southold High School stage on Saturday, Aug. 21.

When Rosanne Cash was 18 years old she went on tour with her father, country music legend Johnny Cash. Ms. Cash, who will give a concert sponsored by The Arts in Southold Town at Southold High School on Aug. 21, remembered sitting on the tour bus one afternoon talking about songs with her father.

“He mentioned a song, and I said, ‘I don’t know that one.’ He mentioned another one, and I said, ‘I don’t know that one, either,’â” she wrote in an e-mail interview this week. “Then he started to get alarmed, so he spent the rest of the day making a list on a legal pad, and at the top he put ‘100 Essential Country Songs.’ And he handed it to me and he said, ‘This is your education.'”

Rosanne Cash’s most recent album, “The List,” released last year, offers her interpretations of 12 of those songs. At 55, now living in New York, she has spent decades distancing herself from the caricature of country singers as artists who simply interpret songs written by others. Her work as a singer-songwriter has been intensely personal. Her albums have run the full emotional length of a lifetime, from 1993’s “The Wheel,” which chronicled the breakup of her marriage to country singer Rodney Crowell, to 2006’s “Black Cadillac,” a journey through her grief following the deaths in 2003 of both her father and her stepmother, June Carter Cash. Then, while touring to promote “Black Cadillac,” she began to include songs from her father’s list in her sets.

“My relationship to the list has gone from thinking of it as a template for great songwriting, and a lovely thing my dad took the time to make for me, to a rich archive of essential American music and a profound legacy that it took me three decades to begin to step into,” she said.

Many of the songs on “The List” are duets, including “Sea of Heartbreak,” the Hal David and Paul Hampton classic that she performs in a flowing, half-haunting, half-hopeful harmony with Bruce Springsteen. Their rendition of the song was a recent radio hit.

There are bound to be echoes of Johnny Cash for listeners of “The List.” Ms. Cash provides her own interpretation of the Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin classic, “Long Black Veil,” the story of a man who’d rather be executed for a murder he didn’t commit than admit to his alibi: He was having an affair with his best friend’s wife. Mr. Cash recorded an iconic version of that song at Folsom Prison in 1968.

“A song like ‘Long Black Veil’ went from being a well-constructed and cinematic song when I was younger to being the quintessential country song to me,” she said. “It has everything: it’s a murder ballad, the central character has great integrity, it’s cinematic in quality and it’s a ghost story!”

Ms. Cash also interprets Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” — a love song most frequently heard as a duet by Dylan and Johnny Cash that was the opening track on Dylan’s 1969 “Nashville Skyline” album — and the Hank Cochran tune “She’s Got You,” which was made famous by Patsy Cline.

“There is certainly more material I’d like to do,” she said. “We started by choosing which songs suited my voice, and then thought about balancing the record almost in an academic way. We had to include the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams if we were going to make a record that captured the breadth and depth of the list. The only song I know for sure that I would have to include on volume two of ‘The List’ would be ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams. Everything else is open to discussion.”

The show at Southold High School is one of three musical bookings Ms. Cash has planned for this month. She is also beginning a book tour in support of her memoir, “Composed,” which was released Aug. 10.

“I started working on ‘Composed’ a decade ago, by writing an essay called ‘The Ties That Bind’ that was subsequently chosen for a compilation called ‘Best Music Writing 2000,’â” she said. “My editor at Viking read it and said, ‘This is the beginning of a memoir.’ So in some way, I never made a conscious decision to write a memoir! I just found myself doing it. Writing is by definition a solitary pursuit, but I like that. In song writing, there is always the option to use poetic license or create fiction whole cloth, but in a memoir, of course, I felt a responsibility to the ‘truth,’ — or my truth, anyway — and the facts as I remember them.”

The book tour kicked off Tuesday night with a party at a Barnes and Noble in Manhattan, where Ms. Cash lives with her husband, musician and record producer John Leventhal. He will accompany Ms. Cash at her show in Southold.

“My husband and I have a close creative partnership that infuses all areas of our relationship and we like it this way,” she said. “We are very close, and we are the yin to each other’s yangs. We are very different, with different strengths and weaknesses, and we find we complement each other well. I love doing these duo shows with him. It’s kind of the height of romance.”

The Arts in Southold Town has been sponsoring several concerts each year since since 1994, with the goal of providing top-notch cultural events for town residents. It began with jazz concerts, and will return to those roots in December with a Christmas concert featuring the New Orleans jazz band, Preservation Hall.

“What we’re trying to do with Rosanne Cash is expand our audience. We’ve never had country music,” said Phyllis Constan, a member of the group’s board of directors who is helping to organize the show. “We hope to have a good crowd, with people who have never come to our concerts before.”

Ms. Cash’s Aug. 21 performance at Southold High School auditorium begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $50, and credit card reservations can be made at 734-6320. Tickets are also being sold for either cash or check at Cecily’s Love Lane Gallery in Mattituck, Peconic Liquors in Cutchogue, Old Country Charm in Southold, JET’s Dream in Greenport and Barth’s Pharmacy in Riverhead.

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