Johnny Cash: Out Among The Stars
This article originally published at Pitchfork.
“Writing about Johnny Cash is a lot like writing about religion: It’s tough to know where to start, and most folks have their own unshakable ideas on the subject and little interest in your interpretation. At the heart of the matter lies a simple truth: it’s difficult to cast a critical eye over something you’ve grown up with, a presence you’ve always taken as gospel. So it must be said that not everything Johnny Cash recorded was hewn from pure gold. We sometimes need reminding that despite his larger-than-life existence, at the end of the day he was but a man, one who made plenty of mistakes, both personal and musical. Cash’s flawed humanity is one of the reasons why so very many people were drawn to him, and why we remember him still. This newest addition to his ever-expanding body of posthumous work, an album originally recorded 30 years ago but never released at the time, provides additional context for one of the strangest and most flawed periods of his career, and offers up a few damn good tunes in the bargain.
Out Among the Stars dates to the 1980s, which may as well have been Cash’s lost decade. Nashville was so enamored of its rhinestone cowboys and gritty outlaws that the Man in Black slipped between the cracks and, in his own words, became largely invisible. His rough-and-tumble persona had been softened by television appearances and married life, and it didn’t help that his three decades with Columbia Records had left both Cash and the label sour on one another. The early 80s marked a high point in the chart battle between Bakersfield-influenced pop country and the burgeoning outlaw scene, and it was during this uncertain period between 1981 and 1984 that the Out Among the Stars sessions took place. Cash showed his chameleon colors by electing to record a duet with notorious rabble-rouser Waylon Jennings called “I’m Moving On”, and this move—not to mention his close ties with Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson thanks to their shared time as the Highwaymen—seemed to place his allegiance firmly in the outlaw camp. And yet, the sessions were recorded with au courant countrypolitan hitmaker Billy Sherrill. The album was shelved and remained in the vault until Cash’s son John Carter Cash stumbled across the recordings in 2012 and, joined by co-producer Steve Berkowitz and musicians Marty Stuart, Buddy Miller, and Carlene Carter, restored the album for release.
The thing about Johnny Cash has always been that when he’s on, he’s great, but when he’s not, it can be jarring and almost uncomfortable, like seeing a favorite uncle swig from a hip flask at Christmas. Out Among the Stars is strongest when it stays close to his roughshod roots and rock’n’roll spirit, and it fumbles when it comes to the sappy stuff. There are only a few awkward moments, but they’re hard to ignore. Still, the good outweighs the bad, and you couldn’t be faulted for picking and choosing your sips of poison here. Given its origins, it’s no small wonder that the album comes off more as a collection of songs rather than a unified whole; listening to it all in one go dims a bit of the individual songs’ sparkle.
But man, do some of these cuts sparkle. The opening title track is classic Cash: straightforward and conversational, with punchy Springsteen-gone-bad lyrics (“It’s midnight at a liquor store in Texas, closing time and now the day is done/ When a boy walks in the door and points a pistol, he can’t find a job, but Lord, he’s found a gun”) and a rollicking beat. The protagonist remains a sympathetic figure even as he turns to crime and, as is his wont, Cash puts a lot of himself into those words. It’s a reassuring way to open the album and it dovetails nicely with “Baby Ride Easy”, the first and better of Johnny’s two duets with June; “Easy” is a homespun exchange with an easy twang and bouncy upbeat, and third wheel Carlene Carter’s backing harmonies add a little extra fullness to June’s verses.
On the downside, “After All” is a gospel-tinged piano ballad about lost love that constitutes the album’s weakest three minutes. Cash’s warm baritone is the focal point, but the track feels more schmaltzy than sincere. A few other ballads fair better. “Tennessee” is a nostalgic love note to his birthplace replete with weepy strings and a children’s chorus, and “Don’t You Think Its Come Our Time” is another endearingly sweet duet with June backed by a gentle mix of acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, and upright bass. Saccharine and earnest, the pair sound more like a mooney-eyed young couple singing at a church social; with anyone else, it would sound utterly hackneyed, but their chemistry makes all the difference.
Turns out Johnny the heartbreaker is ultimately a lot more fun to listen to than Johnny the loyal husband. The simple country traipse of “If I Told You Who It Was” sees Cash get nice and comfortable in his role as a storyteller with a wink and a grin, spinning a yarn about a nameless country star with a figure that just won’t quit. “I Drove Her Out of My Mind” makes good use of his oaky baritone and just begs to be played in a dingy barroom full of jilted shadows, while steel guitar swinger “Rock and Roll Shoes” sees Cash unapologetic as ever, trucking along defiantly with a rockabilly strut. “She Used to Love Me A Lot” is best known as a David Allen Coe tune, but as it turns out, Cash beat him to it by a scant few weeks. Though Coe’s delivery is uncharacteristically somber on his rendition, Cash’s version is an even quieter, more staid affair that finds him accompanied by a muted choir and soberly plucked acoustic strings. Where Coe howls, Cash mourns.
Closing track “I Came to Believe”, a Cash original, offers an illuminating contrast to his late period, since it also appeared on his 2006 album V: A Hundred Highways. While the modern version is sparse and fragile, this piano-driven, gospel-influenced number showcases his voice at its finest. He lacks the later gravitas, but his strong, pure baritone easily commands attention and, wrapped around a song of hope and redemption, it ends the album on a high note.
Johnny Cash is an American archetype—Paul Bunyan with a battered acoustic or Davy Crockett with a dobro tucked under his famous cap. To many of us, the low rumble of his voice is a comforting and familiar sound, and while we’ll never get him back, it’s nice to come across his ghost on recordings like this. Though it’s far from “essential,” Out Among the Starsis a boon for fans of country music history as well as those who just can’t get enough Cash. More importantly, it highlights a missing link between the often disparate eras of a long and complicated career.”