Friday’s performance at the Folly Theater was a travelogue, a voyage to another place and time.
Rosanne Cash and her husband and guitarist, John Leventhal, were the evening’s hosts, and for about 100 minutes, they regaled a nearly sold-out crowd with songs about the South and Cash’s ancestral roots.
Cash is touring on her most recent album, “The River and the Thread,” and its music filled nearly half of her set list. She opened with five of its songs, introducing each with a story or an account of what inspired it.
“The Sunken Lands” was a portrait of the region in Arkansas, and the house in Dyess, in which her father, Johnny Cash, was born to cotton farmers and upon which her grandmother raised seven children. “Etta’s Tune” was dedicated to the late Marshall Grant, her father’s bassist in the Tennessee Two “and the third person to hold me after I was born,” his wife, Etta, and their long marriage.
“The Long Way Home” was a hymn about rediscovering the place from which you came: “You thought you’d left it all behind / You thought you’d up and gone / When all you did was figure out / How to take the long way home.”
“When the Master Calls the Roll” recalled ancestry that fought on both sides of the Civil War. “50,000 Watts” pays homage to Memphis and WDIA, America’s first black radio station.
On each song, Leventhal accompanied Cash on guitar, evoking its mood in various flavors: Delta blues, country, folk. On a few tunes, he switched to piano. Cast so sparsely, the songs took on a more intimate spirit, sometimes solemn, sometimes gothic.
They bantered playfully throughout the show. After Cash told her sound man she wanted “more of John, less of me” in her monitor, Leventhal deadpanned: “Record that,” for evidence she’d said it. To the light applause she received after introducing a song from her “Black Cadillac” album, Cash said, “Everyone who bought that album is here tonight.”
Several times she praised the Folly’s environs and thanked a crowd that was attentive all night and generous with applause.
Towards the middle of the 100-minute show, she put aside “The River” and pulled material from “The List,” a collection of songs pulled from a list of 100 songs her father recommended she learn to bulk up on her country music history. The first of those was her slow, bluesy rendition of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On.” Leventhal’s slick lead on that one aroused a gust of applause. Then came “Long Black Veil,” a song she heralded as the foundation of roots music. She followed that with a heart-rending version of “Motherless Children.”
Before her stellar cover of “Ode to Billie Joe,” she recalled a trip she and Leventhal took to Mississippi, describing the modesty of theTallahatchie Bridge -- “a little bridge over a little river” -- and its proximity to other historic places, including one of Robert Johnson’s grave markers.
She closed her set with her version of one of her father’s better-known songs, “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” which provided one of the few uptempo moments of the night, and then one of her own classics, “Seven Year Ache,” her voice, which was rich and soulful all night, conveying a deeper wistfulness.
They returned for one encore, “500 Miles,” the tale of a penniless traveler who yearns to go home, a lament that suited the general theme of this luminous voyage.
Modern Blue; The Sunken Lands; Etta’s Tune; A Feather’s Not a Bird; The Long Way Home; Dreams Are Not My Home; I’m Movin’ On; Long Black Veil; Motherless Chidlren; Blue Moon With Heartache; Ode to Billie Joe; 50,000 Watts; When the Master Calls the Roll; Money Road; Western Wall; Tennessee Flat Top Box; Seven Year Ache; 500 Miles.