As the eldest daughter of one of the most totemic figures of American roots music, it would take a close to link to Hank Williams to elevate Rosanna Cash’s country credentials any further.
Having hit something of a creative and commercial peak with last year’s multiple Grammy-winning 13th solo album The River & The Thread, the 60-year old singer and songwriter certainly doesn’t need to play the Johnny Cash card to warrant attention. The iconic last name is instantly recognisable but the songs and the authoritative way they are delivered tonight stand distinctive. Playing as an acoustic duo with husband, guitarist and co-writer John Leventhal, the no-frills presentation could easily become an invitation for attention to drift away from the Spartan proceedings in the packed, humid, all-standing club.
Aided by plenty of easygoing charm (the song introductions are often just as engaging as the material itself), the duo holds the capacity crowd’s focus with impressive ease during the run of ruminative but spirited cuts from the new album that opens the evening.
Inspired by Cash’s return to her roots in the American deep south via multiple road trips, the songs could easily form the basis of a bingo game where the participants circle the names of the numerous cities, states and rivers – Memphis, Nashville, Tennessee, Mississippi – made famous by a gazillion country and blues songs as they pop up in the lyrics.
We may be trekking in very familiar Americana territory, but the likes of Etta’s Tune – a tribute to the wife of Tennessee Three bassist Marshall Grant, recently widowed after 65 years of marriage – sparkle with a cliché-dodging charm, aided by an economic delivery that eschews the studio gloss that occasionally makes the recorded versions seem just a little too easy on the ear. Things loosen up when Cash and Leventhal embark on a set of inspired covers that provides an opportunity for the latter to showcase his immensely advanced fretmanship; Leventhal manages to make his humble acoustic guitar mimic the weeping tones of a pedal steel on a brooding, overcast take on Hank Snow’s leaving anthem I’m Movin’ On. Moments later, the same instrument becomes a replica of a rockabilly riff machine on Tennessee Flat Top Box. The faithfully folky rendition of Girl of the North Country – performed after Cash invites song suggestions from the audience, leading to a cacophony of yelled requests - seems surprising until you remember that Johnny Cash did a duet with its author Bob Dylan just as the latter was eschewing his status as the hip poet of rock ‘n’ roll.
Later, there’s a beautiful take on Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow by the Carter Family, the Appalachian country originators who used to star Cash’s stepmother June Carter. Cash is certainly not trading on her lineage; it’s just that it’s pretty much impossible to step away entirely from the shadows of the family business whilst dealing in music that could reasonably be filed under Country.
Impressively, songs such as the Civil War-themed When The Master Calls The Roll – which closes the almost two-hour set – are able to hold their own in such prestigious company.