Johnny Cash’s Out Among the Stars: A Threshold to American Recordings
Unearthed recordings from shelved sessions can be mixed blessings. The new release from the Cash estate, Out Among the Stars, pulls from restored and completed sessions from 1983 when, as his son John Carter Cash states on the liner notes, “he had found recovery and he was in perfect voice.” The sessions do reflect the kind of new energy and re-birth that frequents artists who make their way out of the struggles found in addiction. By 1983, Cash was well-versed in the struggle and the re-birth. As Carter Cash put it, “his spirit was soaring and there was joy in his voice.”
But, there may be some adjustment for some listeners and fans.
I gave the album a first run with an 88 year-old friend and life-long Johnny Cash fan. As the album played, he looked up at me with the utmost of honesty and said, “It doesn’t sound like Johnny Cash.”
That got me thinking. When I played the Sun sessions for the same fan, he was mesmerized, like a Zen monk in meditation. He seemed one with the music. He was quiet and, when I watched his facial expressions, it was as though he was taking in every note, every nuance, every crooked moment and dark turned-corner of those classic songs and stripped down recordings consisting of guitar, stand-up bass and that one-of-a-kind voice.
The same thing happened when I played him American Recordings. He listened to The Man Comes Around and the American Recordings first album, Cash, again and again without saying a word. He experienced it like the artist was right there with him, whispering in his ear. There were no complaints of these recordings not “sounding like Cash.”
So, what’s the difference?
Out Among the Stars was released when Cash was still hungry for commercial success. It came at the end of his days at Columbia Records. To be sure, it is a pleasure to listen to Cash in his performing prime, as he is on this album.
What accounts for my friend’s less-than enthusiastic response is that feeling of gloss that accompanied many country recordings of the day. As strong as many of these songs are, this is the Cash who is still in pursuit of past glories. He has not reached the threshold that brought him to Rick Rubin and the authentic breakthrough of the American Recordings. In other words, for those who became fans through those sessions, this may not sound like that same Cash. This artist has put things back together and is unafraid to take the risky turns he would later embrace with Rubin on his final seminal sessions.
But, in its favor, John Carter Cash has restored something of the final glory of the Johnny Cash of the 80’s to the proceedings here. There are several gems in these sessions. Additional music by Marty Stuart, Buddy Miller, Jerry Douglas and the great Sam Bush give the album a kind of earthy life it may not have experienced back in the day when his relationship with Columbia Records was drawing to a close. As producer, Billy Sherrill knew well how to work with Cash during this time and it shows on these recordings in the pure authentic integrity of the production, an essential to any good Cash record.
The central and essential songs on these sessions are the two originals, “Call Your Mother” and “I Came to Believe.” The former, keeping with the mother-and-family theme in a traditional country song, Cash takes a narrative of saying goodbye to a lover who has jilted him and bidding farewell to her family as much as to the object of his heartbreak. In its simple innocence, it is the kind of vintage Cash where the roots run back to the songs of his early Sun days.
“I Came To Believe” is a genuine revelation. It’s the kind of song that has its birth in the original experience of Cash’s own faith and recovery from addiction. His roots in the spirituality handed down to him through his Bible Belt Pentecostal raising, “I Came To Believe,” reflects a first-hand experience captured in song. As much as Cash loved Christianity and gospel music, he has rarely hit the mark as close as he has on this song.
The duets mark the highest and most rewarding moments on this album. “Ride Easy” is a reminder of the musical and lyrical chemistry that lived between Cash and his wife, June Carter. With an upbeat, rolling tempo, it calls to mind songs like “If I Were a Carpenter” and “Jackson.” “Don’t You Think Our Time Has Come” offers the same rewards. A gentle country ballad, the added session work with Sam Bush on mandolin, Bryan Sutton on guitar and banjo, and Mark Fain on upright bass, sweeten the proceedings. But the central pleasure is hearing John and June singing together again.
The duet with Waylon Jennings on Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” brings another of Cash’s favorite collaborators back on a song that’s classic, as the duo nail this one with an ease only old friends can muster. It’s a rocking good time. This is where the session work of Jerry Kennedy, Marty Stuart, Hargus “Pig” Robbins, and Kenny Malone shines.
The other song that make these sessions worthy of the Cash legacy is Elvis Cosetllo’s production of a Rhonda Flemming-Dennis Morgan-Charles Quillen song, “She Used To Love Me A Lot.” Although there is quite a bit of extraneous production here, it foreshadows American Recordings in its apocalyptic tone.
Many of the songs and sessions are entertaining but dispensable. “If I Told You Who It Was” brings back his “The One On The Left” period while “I Drove Her Out of My Mind” is fairly forgettable. “Rock and Roll Shoes,” a Paul Kennerley song, allows Cash to pay homage to his rockabilly past. Fun, but nothing to shout about.
Out Among the Stars solidly captures the last spark of country commercialism for Cash’s Columbia days. It reflects an artist back on the rise again after some dark years. It is a threshold album where the past was all behind him and he looked clear-eyed to the future.
Like my old friend, the listener may not hear the Johnny Cash with whom we’ve become most familiar through the Sun and American Recordings sessions, but this is, in many ways, definitive Cash in a very commercial vein. A decade later, he broke through with work equal to the Sun Sessions thanks to Rick Rubin and the American Recording sessions that bookended his glory days. This album, finds the artist restored and renewed, and ready for the journey. It’s well worth going along for the ride, even as he’s on his way here to some future landmarks.
(originally published in Turnstyled Junkpiled)