Out Among the Stars
Sony IN 2014 there is no more venerated figure in country music than Johnny Cash, but it was not always this way.
In 1981, Cash was a decade past his greatest success and at least that far away from his creative rebirth, midwifed by producer Rick Rubin. Back then there were no hipsters wearing T-shirts of Cash flipping the bird at San Quentin prison. In 1981 he was making records that he hoped would help him find a new audience, if not reconnect with an old one.
People might have stopped listening — including crucially, those at Columbia Records, his home for more than 20 years — but Cash never stopped making worthwhile, if not out-and-out classic, albums.
It is in this environment that Cash connected with Nashville’s money manproducer Billy Sherrill to work on a follow-up to 1981’s The Baron, his 66th album. From there the story gets interesting. Out
Among the Stars is the result of their efforts (bolstered by some further recording in 1984 and judicious overdubs in 2013), an almost complete and completely forgotten album that Cash’s son John Carter Cash found in 2012 when going through the archives.
Out Among the Stars doesn’t sound burdened by ambition or desperation; rather, it captures Cash and an A-grade team with their sleeves rolled up, simply trying to make the best recording with the materials at hand. It hangs together like a typical Cash album, filled with story songs, gospel songs, humorous songs and guest stars (wife June, pal Waylon Jennings).
The boom-chicka-boom sound is present but polished a la Sherrill. Amid the familiar is
After All, a straight country ballad, the likes of which the producer churned out with George Jones and Charlie Rich. He may not have the versatility of either of them but Cash, so far from his comfort zone, nails it.
June Carter Cash duets on Baby Ride Easy, at the time a recent hit for her daughter Carlene Carter and Dave Edmunds. June may not match Carlene for simmering sexuality but she and Cash sure sound as if they are having a ball out front of a band racing through the changes. Recent overdubs by Jerry Douglas (dobro) and Marty Stuart (mandolin) add an extra layer of class. Similarly, the subtle use of Buddy Miller’s shimmering guitar on She Used to Love Me a
Lot ensures it’s as fresh as tomorrow’s milk. The song itself is a gem, once a hit for David Allan Coe, but now safely a Cash classic.
Cash also offers a classic from his own pen. On Call Your Mother the master storyteller offers a fresh angle on divorce. His celebrated sense of humour comes to the fore on the dark, dark I Drove Her Out of My Mind, where a man lays out his plan for a murder-suicide. The pure genius of a gospel choir handclapping and hallelujahing on the outro only adds to the absurdity of the situation.
One of a kind in 1981, one of a kind now.