Beyond being some of Johnny Cash's most brilliant work, his early '90s collaborations with Rick Rubin were celebrated for their sparseness after the tinny, technologically-obsessed studio practices of the 1980s laid waste to many a legacy artist's creative core. Recently discovered by John Carter Cash, the only child of Johnny and June Carter Cash, Out Among the Stars challenges conventional wisdom about Cash's artistic worth in the '80s. The songs here stem from sessions in 1981 and 1984 and were captured when Columbia Records, Cash's longtime label, had no earthly idea what to do with this "cowboy music" and ultimately shelved the project.
Johnny Cash was a country music legend, but in the 80s he fell out of favour with his record label and they refused to release this intriguing "lost" album which was discovered in his archives. It was recorded while he was battling drug addiction, though his singing was sober, powerful and emotional. But he was clearly unsure of his musical direction, and the result is a set that veers from a forgettable MOR ballad, After All, to glorious duets with his wife, June Carter Cash, and Waylon Jennings.
Often, "lost" albums are lost for good reason; the musician(s) or labels didn't believe in the music enough to release them. And considering that the glossy 80s weren't a particularly fruitful time for old-school outlaw country musician Johnny Cash, there's even more reason to be leery of Out Among The Stars. But this posthumous album is wonderful. Shelved in the 80s after Columbia dropped Cash, it's marvellously quaint in spite of the involvement of countrypolitan producer Bill Sherrill.
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.
No dig through the past can guarantee turning up something of value. Location can enhance the odds, though. For instance, if you’re John Carter Cash (son of late country icon Johnny Cash) sorting through your father’s recording archives, you have a significantly better chance of unearthing something of genuine public intrigue than most of us do when, say, rummaging through grandma’s attic.
Out Among the Stars is a newly unearthed Johnny Cash album, recorded in 1981 and 1984 but for some reason shelved at the time. Falling during Cash's slow middle period, the album was lost to time until being found by Cash's son, John Carter Cash, as he was cataloguing the family's archives. And it's a gem for fans who have missed the Man in Black's inimitable voice since his passing in 2003.
Mention Johnny Cash and most people either think of the young Sun Records singer whose early singles like “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire” changed the sound of country music, or they’ll remember him as he was near the end of his life, as a reinvented hipster who sang bare-bones versions of songs made popular by Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails. Until now, it’s been difficult to reconcile the polarities. The trainwrecks of Cash’s early career as chronicled in his first autobiography, The Man in Black, and mythologized in the 2005 biopic Walk The Line have had such an influential role in forming the public’s perception of the artist that people could be forgiven for thinking that nothing much happened in between his marriage to June Carter in 1968 and his “comeback” albums with Rick Rubin in the 1990s.
When a musician you really love passes away, it often changes the way you listen to their music. Certain phrases now seem prophetic; the minor keys sound a shade more ominous; those moments of pure joy take on a tinge of the bittersweet. Sometimes, that's unfortunate: I'd rather be able to listen to “Leaving on a Jet Plane” the old way, without thinking about death.
If Out Among the Stars had come out when its sessions were completed, it would've appeared sometime in 1984, arriving between 1983's flinty Johnny 99 and 1985's slippery, sentimental Rainbow. Allegedly, this album -- discovered by Legacy and John Carter Cash during some archival work in 2012 -- was shelved because its Billy Sherrill production was just a little bit too pop for Johnny Cash's taste, but that reasoning isn't sound, particularly with the Chips Moman-produced crossover of sugar of Rainbow taken into consideration. Moman had been riding high on the hits he produced for Willie Nelson -- notably "Always on My Mind," Willie's last great crossover smash -- and he applied a similar heavy-handed touch to Cash, who at that point was several years away from his last Country Top 10 hit ("The Baron" went to 10 in 1981).
Johnny Cash often seemed like he was granite in human form, so it's odd to think that such a giant once had his career derailed by John Travolta. The 1980 hit film Urban Cowboy accelerated country's long drift toward music that was soft, vacant and overproduced – driving Cash to dismiss the "Urban Cowboy fad" as "mechanical-bull manure." Smokey and the Bandit II came out that year, too, which didn't help. In Cash: The Autobiography, he admitted that as his sales fell off in the Eighties, he became apathetic.
If you only know Johnny Cash from his rip-snorting 50’s and 60’s heyday or the Rick Rubin-produced recordings at the end, Out Among The Stars provides another view by concentrating on a largely forgotten era of the career of the Man in Black. These recordings with legendary producer Billy Sherrill and a top-notch studio band, some from 1981 and some from ’84, were recently discovered in the Cash archives. The spread-out dates render the whole “lost album” claim a bit spurious.
The quick-fix history of Cash’s recording career has a tendency to suggest his work with producer Rick Rubin, which began in the mid-90s, arrested a sharp decline in quality. But while it’s true that some late-80s releases were seriously below par, ultimately leading to Columbia letting him go, it would be a mistake to dismiss his entire output of the decade. This album goes part of the way towards salvaging Cash’s reputation during that period; a dozen previously unreleased tracks recently discovered by label archivists and Johnny’s son, John Carter Cash.
New Musical Express (NME) - 50 Based on rating 2.5/5
Johnny Cash died over 10 years ago, but the music keeps on coming (this is the third album proper, alongside numerous reissues and compilations) and that’s always been the subject of debate. On the one hand, you can argue that he’s an important figure in American music and hearing new material helps us form a more complete picture of his craft and history. On the other, a cynic might suggest that his legacy is being milked by his estate, which is run by his family, and Sony’s Legacy Recordings.‘Out Among The Stars’ is music that Cash didn’t complete in a fallow period of his career – the early ’80s, when he was struggling with drugs, at war with his label Columbia and out of sync with music fans.
Be forewarned: you should check your expectations for this album right from the start. Judged purely on its own merits, Out Among the Stars is a decidedly average Johnny Cash effort, perhaps even a touch worse than that. Like much of his work in the 1980s, it is hobbled by poor production, mediocre material, and a general lack of purpose. Nonetheless, all those criticisms aside, this remains an important record.
It’s natural to be wary of posthumous releases. At a certain point, one has to wonder if we’re being given record label chaff, material the artist had already decided wasn’t wheat. There’s a certain calculus involving our need for more from departed musicians and writers, the artists’ own (presumed) ideas about their work, and the dictates of profit that often motivate vault-scraping releases from deceased creators.