New York • In the Himalayan art and artifacts that are the heart of the Rubin Museum of Art, some traditions go back thousands of years. Other traditions there, like Rosanne Cash’s series of acoustic performances, are more recent — and are a stretch from Tibetan Buddhism — yet are part of the institution just the same.
Since the Rubin opened in October 2004, Cash has become its unofficial musician in residence, turning out once or twice a year for cozy shows in the museum’s tiny, wood-paneled basement theater. Her first performance came less than a week after the Rubin opened its doors, and she has never really left. On Friday Cash makes her 12th appearance, with the violinist Mark O’Connor.
“I have played in so many venues in this city, from Carnegie Hall to a basement day care center in Brooklyn and everything in between,” Cash said in a recent interview at her town house in the neighborhood of Chelsea, a few blocks from the museum. “But the Rubin has become really special to me. You do that many shows in one place, and it starts to feel very homelike.”
Loosely structured around universal concepts — dreams, ancestral legacies — Cash’s shows are grab bags of favorite songs, thematic larks and the occasional new tune on tryout, all of it casual and chatty enough to feel like a living-room jam session. For each show Cash and her husband, the guitarist John Leventhal, invite a guest performer, and their roster over the years has included Sandra Bernhard, Loudon Wainwright III, Marc Cohn and Marshall Crenshaw. At Friday’s show with O’Connor, the theme is memory.
Five years ago Elvis Costello joined her for a concert devoted to the idea of magic numbers, revealing the profusion of numerological pop songs: “Heartaches by the Number”; Bob Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings”; Costello’s “Less Than Zero.”
“The only appropriate answer when Rosanne asks you to do a concert accumulating numbers is: ‘How many?’” Costello wrote in an email.
The series, officially called Acoustic Cash, came about as a result of a blind pitch by Tim McHenry, who directs the museum’s event programming. Seeking to establish the Rubin as a neighborhood arts center, he approached some prominent Chelsea residents in the months before the museum opened. He wrote to Cash in January 2004 requesting nothing more extensive than a public discussion.
But she was intrigued. And though Cash says she is not a Buddhist (“I kill ants and eat meat,” she notes, with a belly laugh), the request reached her just as she was in the market for some cosmic solace; her father, Johnny Cash, had died four months earlier.
“Tim came at just the right time,” Cash said, surrounded in her living room by fading photographs that in another context might constitute a small archive of American music history but for her are simply family pictures. “I was happy to soak up any spiritual sustenance that made itself available. It felt very safe and comforting to think about the cycles of life and death.”
Cash played six shows in the museum’s first eight months; since then she has returned on a roughly annual schedule. Her performances helped put the Rubin on the New York cultural map, McHenry said, and drew more talent. The museum’s musical programs now include classical, singer-songwriter and world-music concerts, as well as jazz series like Harlem in the Himalayas.
“Her endorsement allowed me to say, ‘We have Rosanne Cash, so we’re real,’” McHenry said.
Cash often browses through the museum’s galleries for inspiration, and the links between her art and the Rubin’s can be striking. For her first show, about cycles of life and death, she became fascinated by a painting depicting the wheel of life and resurrection, a classic image in Tibetan Buddhism that became a revealing backdrop when projected at the performance. In the context of the painting, the lyrics to “The Wheel,” her 1993 song, seem eerily appropriate: “And the wheel goes round, round/ And the flame in our souls, it will never burn out.”
“To pull pop songs together with those images, it’s just a fascinating idea,” Cash said.
But she said she took pains not to make the whole experience too didactic, a position shared by her friend and neighbor Bernhard, who was the guest a year ago.
“The setting speaks for itself, wherever you are,” Bernhard said in a phone interview. “The less said, the more impact the performance has, whether it’s a spiritual place, a strip club, a jazz club — every setting has its own quiet message.”
If the Rubin and its art have a message, Bernhard suggested, it might be the need for reflection and peace in an age of electronic distraction. Or perhaps that even the most intimately affecting ideas can come from anywhere.
At her early Rubin shows Cash tried out some songs of grief and loss that ended up on “Black Cadillac,” her 2006 album. And after singing “Heartaches by the Number” with Costello in 2007, Cash invited him to record it with her two years later on “The List,” a set of country standards drawn from a sheet of 100 essential songs her father gave her when she was 18.
The Rubin shows, Cash says, are also “a playground” for songs that would fit nowhere else in her repertory. “I do things I would never do in my own show,” she adds. “I sang ‘Cry Me a River,’ ‘Moon River,’ Bee Gees songs, ‘California Dreamin’.’ I sang Green Day’s ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ at the last show,” she said with a trace of disbelief.
The neighborhood angle also appeals to Cash, a 16-year resident of Chelsea who sells “Zone C” T-shirts on her website. (After Hurricane Irene, the city designated Chelsea a high-ground, or C, zone.) A prolific user of Twitter, Cash made it a mock-survival riff — as in, “Here in Zone C, all we need are cupcakes, good music and a full deck of cards to survive anything” — and it stuck. (She proudly modeled a black shirt.)
Before each Rubin concert, Cash and Leventhal rehearse with the night’s guest in their living room (which on a recent afternoon had become a scooter course for her 12-year-old son, Jake). They walk to the museum and hang out afterward for drinks.
But how long will this tradition continue?
“What happens is, I’ll say, ‘Well, I should probably wind this series up,’” Cash said. “And then it ends up being so much fun. So then Tim calls me up and says, ‘Are you ready for 11? Are you ready for 12?’ And I say, ‘OK, as long as it’s fun.’”