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Country in the City

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Cindy, Johnny, Kathy, and Rosanne Cash at the children's grandparents' home in San Antonio, 1962.  

“Those were some of the best memories of my adolescence,” she tells me over tea in her townhouse. “I saw Applause with Lauren Bacall and The Magic Show with Doug Henning. There were still Automats, and Rumpelmayer’s was a big deal, and the Trader Vic’s in the basement of the Plaza. My dad was not terribly strict, and he would treat you like an adult. And he exuded this love for the city.”

Cash absorbed her father’s affection for New York and, later, his wariness of Nashville. As a star of the eighties “new country” movement, she came up with catchy songs laced with insecurity and defiance and ended up with both a cocaine problem (which she got over in 1984) and a 6,000-square-foot house outside Nashville. She battled label executives along the way, and in the twenty years since she escaped the straitjacket of country-music stardom, she has remade herself into something of a New York auteur.

She has gotten by without being an amazing guitar player. Her voice is rich and complicated, but she doesn’t have the force of her musical big sister, Linda Ronstadt, or the sweetness and range of her other immediate forebear, Emmylou Harris. Even so, Cash has always had a knack for interpreting other people’s material. And luckily for her—for her sanity and sense of self-worth—she proved to be a bona fide songwriter. She has made fans out of singers like Bruce Springsteen, David Byrne, Lucinda Williams, and Rufus Wainwright, and she recently finished recording three new songs with Kris Kristofferson and Elvis Costello—perhaps the world’s most unlikely supergroup.

On a recent night, we step out of the concrete heat and into La Grenouille. Cash breezes up to the bar and joshes with the bartender. Charles Masson, the manager, sends over a glass of Champagne and writes out a Bordeaux recommendation. Here she is, the daughter of a man who escaped the poverty of his Arkansas youth, happily at home in this East Side shrine to haute cuisine. “This has to be the most pleasant place in New York right now,” she says.

Cash is, by now, a fixture of the city’s culture elite. She is a member of the Century Association, the Stanford White–designed midtown clubhouse that began accepting female members only in 1988. And she has an absurd number of well-connected friends, including Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead, New York Times op-ed deputy editor George Kalogerakis, Betsey Johnson CEO Chantal Bacon, and novelist Colson Whitehead.

“I have a real worker-bee mentality,” Cash tells me. She’s talking about how she built her career, but she’s really talking about everything else. This is her credo. “Just show up, just do it. Even if you feel like shit and you think you’re terrible and you’ll never get better and it will never go anywhere, just show up and do it. And, eventually, something happens.”

On a hot June day, Cash and Leventhal get into their Toyota Highlander hybrid and head to their country house in Columbia County. With Leventhal at the wheel, his iPod set to shuffle, they listen to Django Reinhardt, Boz Scaggs, and Aretha Franklin. In the passenger’s seat, with her iPad on her lap, Cash breaks the monotony with a tweet: “On long drive. Mr. L. calling my iPad a ‘digital media device’ and giving brief seminar on Django Reinhardt.”

The next day, they make their way to the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In a backstage room a couple of hours prior to showtime, the two of them are poking at a container of warm chicken and a bowl of limp salad. “These shouldn’t be in here,” Cash says. “It’s in my rider: No cucumbers.” She laughs, then adds, “I’m serious. I hate cucumbers.”

Sitting down to eat, Cash says she wants to start tonight’s show with “What We Really Want,” a song from the highly personal Interiors. Leventhal is against the idea, preferring to go with their usual opener, “I’m Movin’ On,” a jaunty Hank Snow number that appears on Cash’s 2009 album, The List, a collection culled from a handwritten list of 100 great American songs that Johnny Cash gave his daughter when she was an 18-year-old neophyte. Leventhal, who produced The List and came up with its impeccable arrangements, makes his case: “I’m serious, sweetie. Why would you mess with a good thing?” Speaking of “I’m Movin’ On,” he says, “it always goes over, it’s fun, it’s not all that serious. And you’ve got to build up to the wrist-slashers. You can’t just hit ’em with it from the beginning.”

Cash laughs at the term wrist-slasher. When Leventhal leaves the room, I ask her how she met him. “He came down when we were in Nashville,” she says, referring to when she was married to Crowell. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, no, my life is going to get so complicated.’ And it did.”


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