She’s not religious, per se, but few artists convey such a deep spirituality as Rosanne Cash.
Few artists, too, are as community-minded. So it was no surprise to see her combining both aspects last month at the Secret City’s annual Carnival of Love fundraiser at the Love Loft on West 37th Street on Valentine’s night.
But she could only stay long enough to have a quick portrait drawn with daughter Carrie, enjoy a performance by a belly dancer and wine glass music player and have a tarot card reading before dashing off to City Winery to do a pair of guest duets with Marc Cohn.
“I hated to miss Chris’s mini-sermon!” Cash said later, in a wide-ranging recap of her recent activities outside of regular concert touring. She was speaking of her friend Chris Wells, the founder/artistic director of the Obie-winning Secret City organization that essentially worships art, and holds monthly performance gatherings for artists and those who believe in the arts.
As the Obie committee stated in recognizing Secret City in 2010, “It’s a salon, it’s a celebration, it’s a show. And it’s a ceremony in a religion without any dogma. For inventing a monthly event that builds connections among artists by offering them sanctuary, humor, beauty, and wonder, the judges have awarded a special citation to The Secret City.”
“It’s a community based on a church service, but without religion—which appeals to me,” said Cash. “I’m wary of religion, but human beings need community and ritual and spiritual support, and Secret City provides all that.”
Her friend Wells, she added, “puts so much into these services and sermons—for lack of a better word. He’s also an actor, singer and writer, and a great performer, and is always incredibly funny and inspiring. Somebody brings something to eat, and there’s music and dancing and art and singing together—the rituals of a church service that’s really, really fun and makes you feel like you’re part of a community.”
But the “whole point,” Cash emphasized, “is to provide spiritual support for artists.”
Indeed, when Wells formed the Secret City with three friends in a small rented room on West 14th Street in 2007, his goal was to create a sanctuary for artists--a regular gathering that would celebrate the creative spirit and those who keep it alive.
Since then the much-expanded group has met monthly on Sunday mornings, each “service” having a different theme while featuring original work, guest artists, live music, singing, conversation and meditation, all in the name of art and the creative spirit that provides the connection.
“I just love it!” said Cash, who has supported Secret City via sale of a limited edition art poster based on a line from her acclaimed memoir Composed, “Art is a more trustworthy expression of God than religion." “I even joined the board! I believe in it that much.”
Meanwhile, Cash has made available an unreleased original song for download exclusively through Greenwich Village’s The Church of St. Luke in the Fields, with all proceeds benefiting its Outreach programs The People Living with AIDS project, which provides a weekly meal, spiritual counsel and fellowship for clients living with HIV/AIDS, and The Church: Art, Acceptance and a Place to Be Yourself for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning Youth and their Allies, which provides a safe haven for LGBTQA street youth under the age of 21.
The song, “Jim And George,” is about an elderly gay couple in her Chelsea neighborhood who were very dear to her. She wrote it 15 years ago “as an exercise in compassion and awareness to see myself through their eyes, and them through my eyes.”
“I was doing tracks with Don Was,” she recalled. “I was pregnant with my son Jake, and started losing my voice when I was pregnant and had to stop recording and never finished it.”
The song just “sat there,” she said.
“It wasn’t appropriate for [her 2003 album] Rules Of Travel or Black Cadillac , but I really liked it and hoped to find a place for it.”
Discussing volunteer opportunities in the LGBT community with a new Twitter friend, Cash, a creative Twitter user, realized that St. Luke had a “great program for kids on the street who’d been rejected by their families,” and remembered “Jim And George”—though the names in the title weren’t real.
"They were so sweet, and an inspiration in how to live life as a couple and stay together and be kind to each other,” she said. “I’d told them about the song, thinking they’d be pleased, but they were very alarmed: They’d been living together 40 years, and their families didn’t know they were a couple!”
A longtime supporter and member of the St. Luke's community, she decided to donate the song—but it took eight months to recover the 15-year-old track.
“It was at a studio that no longer existed!” she said. “So it took a long time to track down, and when I got the master tape parts, there was no bass! So [her husband and producer John Leventhal] put a new bass part on it and I did a new vocal, and John added another electric guitar and we remixed it and gave it to them, and it’s getting a lot of attention and several hundred downloads. But I’d love to bring more attention to it and the program: It’s good for a straight middle-aged woman to stand up for what’s right!”
Otherwise, Cash remains busy working on her next album (she sang a new track, “Modern Blue,” with Cohn and Leventhal at City Winery), preparing to deliver her acclaimed keynote speech at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference in January elsewhere, and looking ahead to the issue of the Johnny Cash Forever postage stamp later this year.
“It’s been in the works for a decade, and we’re so thrilled and proud,” she said, linking it with her continuing involvement in the restoration of her father’s boyhood home in Dyess, Arkansas.
And by the way, what about that tarot card reading at the Carnival of Love?
“It indicated great suffering—wisdom through suffering,” she said, laughing. “Been there, done it. Oh, please.”
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