At 7 p.m., husband and wife, playing as an acoustic duo, open the show with neither “I’m Movin’ On” nor “What We Really Want,” but with a compromise: “Girl From the North Country,” a tender 1963 Bob Dylan ballad that had a second life, in 1969, as a Bob Dylan–Johnny Cash duet, and is a lovely addition to The List. Mid-show, the crowd has a laugh as Cash fails miserably at the job of tuning her guitar, a problem that isn’t solved until Leventhal stands behind her and reaches around to twist the pegs. Not long after the encore (Lerner and Loewe’s “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”), Leventhal loads the guitars into the Highlander. Cash takes his hand and leans into him as they walk to a pub around the corner.
The polyps on Cash’s vocal cords disappeared about a year after she gave birth to Jake. She rehabbed her voice and made a cool album, Rules of Travel. She mourned the deaths of her parents and released the haunting Black Cadillac. Then, more bad news: The pesky headaches, which she had been experiencing for years, turned out to be a symptom of a serious problem with her cerebellum, which was crushing her brain stem. In 2007, she had surgery at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
Neurosurgeons consider a day’s work serious if it means they have to cut through the brain lining, and that’s how it went in her case. I ask Cash if she worries she’s not the same person she was before surgery.
“I’m not!” she replies. “I’m totally not the same person. I have a lot more manic energy. And I experience music differently. My theory is, my brain problem was like a veil over my experience of music, and they took the veil off. It’s so great.” After surgery, she threw herself fully into writing Composed. “When you get a glimpse of your own mortality, it’s very motivating.”
Loud noises still bother her. So do certain frequencies. While doing the soundcheck for a daytime July 4 concert on Governors Island, she steps close to the microphone, only to set off a piercing feedback squall. She grabs her ears, sets down her custom Martin guitar, and leaves the stage for the nearby trailer. It takes twenty minutes to finish the soundcheck.
Despite the 95-degree weather, and the fact that the banner above the stage has Cash’s first name spelled incorrectly (“Roseanne” instead of “Rosanne”), and her discovery of cucumber slices in another backstage salad (“You know, when I put ‘no cucumbers’ in the rider, I thought I spelled it correctly,” she says), the performance is a roaring success.
Afterward, she greets fans on the grass. One of them is a nervous young man who’s clutching posters, clipped-out articles, and show bills for Cash to sign. He even has a copy of her import-only debut, Rosanne Cash, recorded for a German label.
“Oh, shit!” Cash says. “Where’d you get that? I don’t have it myself. You don’t have a shrine to me, do you?”
“I don’t have a shrine,” the fan answers. “I’m just a purist.”
“You mean completist?”
“Completist,” he says, as two security guards look on.
This summer, Cash has been playing especially charged versions of “Dreams Are Not My Home,” a song she wrote and recorded for Black Cadillac. In the kitchen of her townhouse, I ask her if the song’s titular refrain is meant to be from the perspective of her mother, who had to deal with being married to a man who often lived inside his own head.
“That’s exactly what it’s about,” Cash says, tearing up a little.
Did the song also apply to her own marriage to Leventhal, a quiet man who, I wondered, might also be someone who spends a lot of time in musical dreamland?
“Vice versa,” says Cash. “I was the one who was ungrounded and dreamy, and he is the one who pulled me back to earth, in a really good way.”
Leventhal is sitting at the kitchen table. “I’m not the dreamy one,” he says. “I’m dreamy when it comes to music, but not as far as how the world works.”
“The other day,” Cash says, “he looked up at the sky and he said, ‘Oh, God, don’t let me go first. She’ll never make it.’ I tweeted about that.”