Saturday night at the Red Dragon Listening Room, singer, songwriter and second-generation star Rosanne Cash performed at what likely is the smallest venue in which she’s ever appeared.
The night after Cash, oldest daughter of country singer Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian Liberto, played the Red Dragon, she appeared at Tipitina’s in New Orleans. That famous music venue holds 1,000 people, about 10 times as many as the grassroots-based Red Dragon accommodates in Baton Rouge.
“Wow, this is a first,” Cash said upon taking the small Red Dragon stage with her husband and longtime musical collaborator, John Leventhal.
With Leventhal’s 60th birthday approaching — Dec. 18 to be exact — Cash said she and her husband are on a Southern pilgrimage.
The couple is traveling down U.S. 61, the roadway commonly known as Highway 61 and, because it runs through Memphis, Mississippi, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the Blues Highway.
Stops along the way included blues man Robert Johnson’s grave and Cleveland, Miss., a city with multiple stops on Mississippi’s official blues trail.
The trip translates to cultural research for the couple. Cash, a Memphis native who spent much of her childhood in southern California, said that she and Leventhal are making an album inspired by the South.
The singer segued from talk of her Southern journey to a song that captures the region’s heat and melancholy as keenly as any song, Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 summer hit “Ode to Billie Joe.”
Leventhal’s guitar provided varied atmospheric detail for Cash’s smoky vocals about a young man who mysteriously throws himself off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Cash and Leventhal made that Mississippi bridge another of the stops on their deep South drive.
A songwriter with her own stellar discography of original recordings, Cash nevertheless played many non-original songs during her Dragon show. She recorded several of the latter selections for her 2009 album, “The List.” The album’s 12 songs come from a list of 100 essential country songs compiled for her by Johnny Cash in 1973.
Working from “The List,” Cash and Leventhal performed a good-rocking version of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On,” sailed the sea of loneliness with Don Gibson’s masterful “Sea of Heartbreak,” and retold a tragic narrative song that’s strongly identified with Cash’s father, “Long Black Veil.”
It was a special treat to hear Cash sing “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” a Johnny Cash classic she recorded for her acclaimed 1987 album, “King’s Record Shop.” Leventhal chimed in by reproducing the song’s signature, flat-picking guitar solo.
Amidst the songs by others and the Red Dragon’s Christmas decorations, Cash sang her original material, too, including the Grammy-winning 1985 hit, “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,” a song that sounds both of and beyond its era.
The latter song as well as the song Cash opened the show with, “Dreams Are Not My Home,” from her 2006 album, “Black Cadillac,” plus another career highlight, 1981’s “Seven Year Ache,” all have sturdy pop qualities that transcend categories.
Local singer-songwriter Martin Flanagan, resplendent in his snow-white suit, opened the show with a short set highlighted by the comical “Walter — The Walking Accident.” Martin recently released his album, “Beneath These Strings.”