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. And this particular “for instance” approximates how Out Among the Stars — an album of 12 long-forgotten, originally shelved Johnny Cash recordings from the early ‘80s — finally came to see a release date.
The spotty history of posthumous releases warrants the skepticism and reluctance most listeners bring to them. We’ve learned to be wary of projects for which the artist wasn’t alive to provide a final stamp of approval. For example, Jimi Hendrix’s much-anticipated 2010 album, Valleys of Neptune, turned out to be a mere hint at what could have been rather than a full-fledged realization of the pioneering guitarist’s vision. Even the final volume of Cash’s beloved American Recordings series, American VI: Ain’t No Grave, at times gives the impression that trusted producer Rick Rubin may have been curating from a rather depleted selection of leftovers from the Man in Black’s final recording sessions.
Out Among the Stars, however, plays like an authentic record and not a compilation. Its songs, though primarily covers, stand shoulder to shoulder neatly, a steady stream of rockabilly and folk imbued with a softer version of Cash’s outlaw persona — here, a man resigned to being on the outskirts of love, small-town life, and general acceptance. From this perspective, Out Among the Stars offers a potentially revealing glimpse into a period when Cash’s star had faded and his signature introduction of “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” generally fell upon indifferent ears.
In later recordings, Cash drew power from the palpable mortality and frailty present in his voice. Here, his crisp and rugged bass baritone still resonates at its most robust, an iron-like tool he deftly recasts to match each song’s emotional tone. “I’m Movin’ On” finds him swapping journeyman verses with fellow highwayman Waylon Jennings, Cash’s vocals riding the tumbling arrangement like an 18-wheeler hell-bent on getting out of town. As a contrast, he conjures an ex’s melancholy sweetness on the serene “After All”, which wafts softly in a moment of reflective stillness. And for the comical kiss-and-tell (but don’t name) “If I Told You Who It Was”, Cash adopts a boyish, playful talk-sing to recount the salacious details of a young man’s roadside encounter and subsequent night spent with a famous female country star, deadpanning lines like “Her tire unlike her body was very flat.”
Anyone remotely familiar with Cash’s career-reviving American Recordings series already knows that the Man in Black possessed an uncanny ability for embodying the songs of others. Out Among the Stars does nothing to tarnish that reputation. On the title track — the tale of a small-town adolescent who arms and bunkers himself inside a Texas liquor store — Cash manages to convey the boy’s desperation, his drunken father’s disdain, and the town’s general callousness in what becomes a plea for second chances. On “Tennessee”, he sells the charms of the Volunteer State as well as any native son or bureau of tourism ever could. But it’s on lead single “She Used to Love Me a Lot” that Cash puts his most indelible stamp on a cover, the same type of mark that still hasn’t worn off of later efforts like “Hurt” (Trent Reznor) and “For the Good Times” (Kris Kristofferson). The song depicts a cinematic chance meeting between ex-lovers and a failed, one-sided attempt at rekindling, but it’s difficult to take things at face value given Cash’s circumstances during the recording. When he echoes, “She used to love me a lot” throughout the song, you get the sense that he’s talking about the music industry, his longtime label (Columbia), and even his relationship with fans as much as he’s recalling how a particular girl once felt about him.
The two original Cash compositions, “Call Your Mother” and “I Came to Believe” (a later version of which appears on American V: A Hundred Highways), are overshadowed here but feel at home among these covers. It’s easy to imagine the resigned and appreciative on-the-outs narrator of “Call Your Mother” being a different side of the same man who embraces one last date (“I Drove Her Out of My Mind”), pines for a long time (“She Used to Love Me a Lot”), but eventually comes to cherish what that woman meant and still means to him (“After All”). In this sense, Out Among the Stars feels like a distant prequel to the American Recordings — an earlier glimpse of Cash’s craft for drawing songs from disparate sources and allowing them to speak to and breath alongside one another in a way that stirs something dormant within us.
Having finally made it into listeners’ hands, the real mystery around Out Among the Stars now becomes how a set of songs so poignant and beautifully rendered could remain neglected for three decades. Placed within the context of Cash’s legendary career, this collection sees the Man in Black shining brightly out among the stars, even at a moment when most of the world wasn’t really interested in stargazing.
Essential Tracks: “She Used to Love Me a Lot”, “After All”, and “Tennessee”