Rosanne Cash and her husband, John Leventhal, a duet in every sense of the word, treated a sold-out Martha’s Vineyard audience to a display of their rich musical and songwriting talents at Flatbread Company on Tuesday night, and in the process raised a heap of money for the effort to save the Gay Head lighthouse. For those who paid $200 and more for a ticket, donating money never sounded so good.
Aside from her well-known country music lineage as the eldest daughter of the legendary late Johnny Cash, for some time now Rosanne Cash has added considerable accomplishments to her personal and professional resumé. Singer, songwriter, author, and mother of four daughters and one son, she is a star in her own right, and on Tuesday night she shared her insights on life with the audience through her music.
Many of the songs were drawn from her latest album, “The River & the Thread,” her first album in four years, which her husband produced and arranged.
“Cash comes full circle as a storyteller and singer of exceptional grace and grit,” James Reed of the Boston Globe wrote in a review. “It’s among her finest work in a 35-year career, assured and at ease, and one of 2014’s first great albums.”
Each song is built on a story drawn from shared experiences of Ms. Cash and Mr. Leventhal during a series of road trips through the south and a reconnection with the southern culture that defined her childhood. In brief introductions, Ms. Cash described the foundation of each song. For example, “Etta’s Tune,” a sweet ballad, tells the story of Etta and Marshall Grant, her father’s longtime bassplayer. The couple remained married for 65 years, a record in the industry of touring bands, Ms. Cash said. Every morning when they woke, she said, they asked each other, “What’s the temperature, darlin’?’’
Ms. Cash’s songs provide a narrative of her not always easy life. Her interaction with Mr. Leventhal, alone on the stage with their guitars, provided a sense of intimacy and a display of Mr. Leventhal’s musicianship, which might not have come across so easily in a larger venue.
The evening began with an auction of five items, that included a trip to a resort in the southwest and a week in a Paris flat, that raised a total of $27,000. Actor and Chilmark resident Tony Shalhoub brought his deadpan skills to the job of auctioneer with able assistance from straight man builder Lenny Butler of Aquinnah, who heads the Save the Gay Head Lighthouse Committee.
“It is not an easy thing to move a lighthouse, and it isn’t cheap,” Mr. Butler said, noting that after the night the committee expected to be half way to its goal of $3 million to save the iconic beacon.
In a conversation with The Times following a sound check Tuesday afternoon, Ms. Cash, who was greatly looking forward to a nap after a long drive from Truro where she had performed the night before, spoke about her connection to the New England and the ocean.
Ms. Cash said the Vineyard connection stems from the long friendship between her husband and master guitar restorer Flip Scipio, husband of Mitzi Pratt, one of the organizers of the effort to save the lighthouse that is now within 46 feet of the cliff edge. Ms. Cash and Ms. Pratt got to know each other last year when Ms. Cash asked Ms. Pratt, a custom book binder, to bind a book as a special gift for her husband.
“Mitzi just asked us, she was involved with this, with saving the lighthouse and asked us to do it and I thought, what could be bad about this? Saving a lighthouse, coming to the Vineyard in July, seeing friends. So we’re here.”
Ms. Cash has roots in the area. “My first Cash ancestors went to Salem, and then a group of them went to Nantucket. And William Cash was a whaling captain in the early 19th century. In fact, the jawbone of the whale that hangs in the town museum was brought by William Cash.”
Ms. Cash, who now makes her home in New York City, has written about the sense of loss she felt when she moved from Malibu to Nashville and was not near the ocean.
“The ocean is like religion to me, I don’t feel myself unless I get a regular trip to the ocean.”
Asked what she misses about the south, Ms. Cash said, “The food. Really good cornbread. And sweet tea, but I don’t have to miss the south, I go down often enough.”
Being a mother, she said, helps feed her songwriting. “Getting your heart opened, getting your heart broken, you wrangle with all your deep issues, so all of that goes into songwriting somewhere or other.”
Writing songs or prose all require discipline, she said. She said she has no preference but that songwriting is her first love. “I do love the prescribed nature of songwriting that your lyrics are married to a melody and you’ve got to do it in four minutes. I like those limitations.”
She and her husband have been performing together for about 20 years. “We enjoy it,” she said. “We do this duo show quite a lot. It is intimate — we play off each other.”
On Tuesday night, the audience got to listen in.
The Save the Gay Head Lighthouse committee is committed to raising $3 million to complete the project before next spring. For more information, visit gayheadlight.org.