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Review: Johnny Cash, “Out Among The Stars”

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Johnny Cash Out Among the Stars“It’s midnight at a liquor store in Texas, closing time, another 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…”

Talk about an introduction! Listening to the “new” 2013 Johnny Cash album Out Among the Stars, it doesn’t take long to realize you’re in good hands. Cash’s robust, reassuring storyteller’s voice is firmly authoritative on the ironically jaunty opening track, yet filled with empathy for the “many weary travelers…bearing both their burdens and their scars.” The song could have been recorded yesterday, but in fact, hails from a “lost decade” for the Nashville legend. That such a strong track dates back to the 1980s, the decade in which he was dropped by his longtime label Columbia, makes its discovery all the more thrilling.

The Johnny Cash of Out Among the Stars isn’t exactly the Cash of American Recordings fame. Whereas producer Rick Rubin reinvigorated the artist’s career by emphasizing the darkness that always lingered just under the surface, these recordings helmed by countrypolitan guru Billy Sherrill (George Jones, Tammy Wynette) take a more rounded approach. Longtime fans of The Man in Black – or anyone lucky enough to pick up Columbia/Legacy’s 2012 Complete Album Collection box set – know that black was just one of his many colors. Cash albums frequently featured dollops of humor and spirituality, too. Though some of Cash’s material from the eighties wasn’t worthy of him – “The Chicken in Black,” anyone? – the songs culled for Out Among the Stars find his instincts in sharp form. Ten of the twelve tracks were recorded between April and June 1984; the remaining two songs date back to 1981.

For these sessions following up their collaboration on The Baron (also from 1981), Sherrill and Cash were joined by June Carter Cash, Waylon Jennings and the first-call group of Marty Stuart (guitar/mandolin), Jerry Kennedy (guitar), Pete Drake (steel guitar), Hargus “Pig” Robbins (piano) and Henry Strzelecki (bass). When the time came to revisit the sessions in 2013, Johnny and June’s son John Carter Cash and co-producer Steve Berkowitz called once again upon Stuart, as well as June’s daughter Carlene Carter, Buddy Miller, Jerry Douglas, Laura Cash, Niko Bolas and others. With the seeming intent of recreating the vintage Cash sound while staying true to the textures of the basic recordings, John Carter has brought back his father’s warmly enveloping, resonant style. These twelve songs are a return to traditionalist country, where anguish and passion go hand in hand in a sea of heartbreak. Out Among the Stars isn’t spare, but supple. This vibrant album should disprove any theories that Cash was incapable of channeling his glory days or was somehow making “irrelevant” music in the electronics-obsessed eighties.

Keep reading after the jump!

Love lost, naturally, plays a major role on Out Among the Stars, including on the album’s best track. The moody “She Used to Love Me a Lot,” written by Dennis Morgan, Charles Quillen and Rhonda Fleming, is most closely associated with outlaw country hero David Allan Coe, who released it as a single in 1984. That Cash deeply felt this painfully raw story song is beyond question; his resigned vocal perfectly complements this rumination on the embers of an old flame that simply can’t be rekindled. As a special bonus, Cash family friend Elvis Costello has contributed a special remix of the track. Elvis’ remix surrounds Cash’s vocal in an unsettling, electronic soundscape, with sharp guitars, a beat, ambience and ethereal female backing vocals. If this alternate view isn’t preferable to the stripped-down original (the most American Recordings-esque of the songs here), it’s still a fascinating complement. In a similarly rueful and reflective mood is Cash’s reading of Sandy Mason and Charles Cochran’s “After All.”

A more lighthearted story song is Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman’s “If I Told You Who It Was” (“…you’d say I was makin’ it up!”), which boasts an amusing payoff sure to bring a smile to Grand Ole Opry devotees. Richard Dobson’s “Baby Ride Easy,” one of two duets with June, has a “Ghost Riders in the Sky”-style arrangement. Listening to it is like inviting two old friends into your living room – comfortable and nostalgic. But even more touching is June and Johnny’s duet on Tommy Collins’ “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time” (“…to be together/Let’s gather up our scattered words of love and make them rhyme”). Love wasn’t always rosy in Cash’s worldview, though. The most aggressive (and aggressively amusing) vocal on Out Among the Stars comes on Gary Gentry and Hillman Hall’s dark, tongue-in-cheek “I Drove Her Out of My Mind.”

Hank Snow’s classic “I’m Movin’ On” is sung with Waylon Jennings in a spirited, impromptu live setting – just two old pros doing what they do best and enjoying each other’s company. Another revival, of Chuck Willis’ “Rock and Roll Shoes,” made it clear that Cash didn’t hang his up! Rick Scott’s bucolic “Tennessee” is less effective, with a children’s chorus upping the cloying factor.   Alas, there are only two Cash originals, “Call Your Mother” and “I Came to Believe.” The latter was written by Cash in rehab, and is another affirmation of the faith that got him through so many difficult times. It’s free of artifice or posturing as Cash “came to believe [he] needed help to get by.”

Out Among the Stars deserves its spot in Johnny Cash’s titanic discography. It remains a mystery why these songs were shelved; “Rock and Roll Shoes” and “I Drove Her Out of My Mind” were recorded on the very same day (April 12, 1984) as the infamous “The Chicken in Black.” The B-side of “Chicken,” “The Battle of Nashville,” originated on the same April 11, 1984 date as this album’s “Out Among the Stars” and “After All.” Had Out Among the Stars been sequenced and released in late 1984, it’s doubtful that it would have changed Cash’s fortunes, despite the strength of its material. The timing just wasn’t right. But now, thirty years later, the time certainly is right to revisit these affecting recordings. Ride this train, won’t you?

You can order Out Among the Stars at Amazon U.S. and Amazon U.K.!

Written by Joe Marchese

April 2, 2014 at 11:49

Posted in Johnny Cash, News, Reviews

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One Response

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  1. A particularly nice touch on Baby, Ride Easy – harmony vocals were added by Carlene Carter who originally had a hit duet with Dave Edmunds with the song, circa 79-80.

    Steve Evanich

    April 2, 2014 at 13:25

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