A third release from beyond the grave - this time from The Man In Black's wilderness years
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. The 12 songs were recorded in 1981 and 1984 by Billy Sherrill – a practitioner of the slicker ‘countrypolitan’ sound of the ’70s (think Tammy Wynette and Glen Campbell) – then discarded, only for Cash’s son, John Carter, to discover them in 2012. They’ve been worked on – digitalised, remastered and tampered with. Parts that were missing have been added, sometimes by players who were there for the original sessions, and not all songs from the sessions are included: ‘Out Among The Stars’ has been edited down and shaped to feel like an album, rather than a compilation or bootleg.
That, in fact, is its strength – it sounds like a finished, lost album; it makes sense as a whole and, if released in 1984 as it is now, it might have even done some business. ‘If I Told You Who It Was’ is a hilarious yarn in which the narrator cops off with a famous country singer who he won’t name because no one would believe him. It’s a cheap song, but Cash nonetheless shows a lightness of touch and confidence you remember from his ’60s recordings. A duet with his wife, June Carter, ‘Baby Ride Easy’, is fabulous too – a driving rhythm coupled with sparky vocal interplay – and there’s a decent version of the Hank Snow classic ‘I’m Movin’ On’, which Cash performs with Waylon Jennings.
Elsewhere, ‘Out Among The Stars’ is poor. ‘After All’ is a stinker of a ballad, and the two Cash originals on here, ‘Call Your Mother’ and ‘I Came To Believe’, are best forgotten, as indeed they once were. Aficionados will value hearing them, if only to be reminded that Cash was creatively (and personally) in the wilderness at the time. Indeed, whatever’s been done to ‘Out Among The Stars’, it remains a 1980s Johnny Cash album and it wasn’t until Rick Rubin got hold of him 10 years later that he came in from the cold.