Doing so made sense, based on Cash's vision. The disc marked a return to her native south (she was born in Memphis, but grew up in the Los Angeles area and has lived in New York City for several decades) with singer/songwriter ruminations about people and life down there with a chunk focusing on her hometown. "The River & The Thread" was well received critically when it came out in 2014, garnering 3 Grammys last year.
Just why Cash had never done a show quite like this before was a bit of a mystery because doing so made a lot of sense. The sound tends to be on the sparer, softer side with the lead-off "A Feather's Not a Bird" sufficiently invigorating to make way for what would be the remaining 10 songs of the 65-minute long first set.
The tonalities ensured that the emphasis remained laser focused on Cash's voice. Smart move because her voice truly has not aged. There is a warmth and tenderness to Cash's singing, almost always high above the music.
That also meant that the lyrics were important as well and made the crowd take notice of the song craft. Cash often gave the backdrop to a particular song. She described the acoustic-based "Etta's Tune" as being about Marshall Grant, bassist for Johnny Cash, and his lovely wife Etta, who were married for 65 years until he died 5 years ago.
Cash offered up her version of what she called a gospel, song, "Tell Heaven," which she wrote with husband and her band director/guitarist John Leventhal, saying that one "can't make an album about the South without a song that feels like a gospel tune." She joked about writing a song that "agnostics might love." The song didn't particularly feel gospel musically, but it had a spiritual theme.
Whereas the first portion if the night was dedicated to one album, the second, shorter 45-minute set, was a mixture of covers and originals.
Cash delved heavily into "The List," her 2009 album based on songs that her father said she needed to know. She proceeded to dish out "I'm Movin' On," a Hank Snow tune (Cash lamented to the crowd that they didn't seem to know who he was); the seemingly overplayed "Long Black Veil," which Cash sang with aplomb; a few Dylan songs, including "Girl from the North Country" and encore song "Angelia," which is not on "The List." Despite a fan calling out for Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings," which Cash recorded for "The List," Cash opted not to play what would presumably have been a most welcome musical tribute.
True to her style of paying attention to the words, Cash made the audience take notice of "Ode to Billie Joe."
Cash seemed to care more about the songs than whether they were hers or not because she only played "Tennessee Flat Top Box," actually a song recorded by Johnny and later Rosanne, and "Seven Year Ache" to close out the regular set.
Leventhal was a key presence with his often subtle, but sometimes more effusive guitar playing. He dueled with fellow guitarist and lap steel man Kevin Barry on a few occasions as well. The pop side creeped into the music often with keyboardist Glenn Patsche. The group served more as the backdrop to Cash's voice, but had the chance to shin on numerous occasions. A few songs, however, seemed to lack the necessary musical punch.
Cash honored her past - both geographical and musical - in a well-constructed, unique evening. Three-decades plus into her career, Cash has not lacked for creativity and point of view. yes, she may have made history, but there was a lot more than that at play tonight.