“That’s actually what I have been avoiding for 40 years.” Rosanne Cash was sharing her response to Ry Cooder’s suggestion that they collaborate on performing the music of Johnny Cash. After all, the singer fought hard to carve out her own musical identity outside the shadow of her country-legend father, and she’s built a marvelous body of work that stands fully on its own. Then again, she’s engaged with his musical legacy bit by bit over the years: a 1988 country chart-topper with his “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” 2003′s duet “September When It Comes,” filling her 2009 covers album “The List” with songs curated by him years earlier. If an all-Johnny program was inevitable, then Wednesday’s performance at the Boch Center Wang Theatre came at an ideal time for her, at a point in her career when she has nothing to prove to anyone.
Cash and Cooder opened with three songs played largely as Johnny played them: the chop and clop of “Understand Your Man,” the easy western-swing lope of “Guess Things Happen That Way” and a “Hey, Porter” drenched in plunking reverb as Cooder — geeking out about it, and not for the last time — played the mid-'50s Fender Esquire used by Luther Perkins to record the original. As Cooder sang, Cash simply sat back, shimmied her shoulders, and snapped her fingers.
But then, having set the tone with faithful renditions, they began to tinker in ways that infused the material with their own personalities. “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” transformed into dusty, groaning Americana, with Cooder singing in a gospel-touched smolder in contrast with Johnny’s hushed, solemn approach. And Cash’s voice on “Hardin Wouldn’t Run” — played on three guitars and an elaborate thumb piano — looked down with warmth and sadness.
And the most recognizable songs were played in unrecognizable ways, at least until the lyrics arrived. “Ring of Fire” was practically transformed into a Nick Cave song, with a foreboding tick-tick-tick rhythm, open-ended guitar parts, and Glenn Patscha’s piano playing icy, rangy flourishes. “I Walk The Line,” meanwhile, was warm and openhearted, shimmering like a Cash song from the 1990s.
It was precisely those moments that revealed the way forward for the Johnny tribute that his daughter had dreaded all those years: Perform his songs like they were Rosanne Cash and Ry Cooder songs. Even with the bleed of reverb, there was always space between the instruments, the way Cooder liked it. And Cash’s incomparable vocal empathy was like a beating heart throughout. They closed with “I’ll Fly Away,” staggeringly beautiful as they traded verses and harmonized with guitarist John Leventhal on the refrain. As Cash explained, “[My father] always ended with a gospel song, he said, to please his mother.”
ROSANNE CASH AND RY COODER
At the Boch Center Wang Theatre, Oct. 30
Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @spacecitymarc