Music Features, Spotlights

Spotlight: Johnny Cash – Out Among The Stars

(Columbia/Legacy) UK release date: 31 March 2014

Johnny Cash - Out Among The Stars Hello, I’m Johnny Cash…’

Archive releases, as a general rule, are marketed to ‘the fans’. But to try and pin down what it means to be a ‘Johnny Cash fan’ is an ultimately fruitless endeavour. His range of musical styles, vocal approaches, lyrical subjects, co-conspirators, producers and muses is staggering.

From his audition before the legendary Sam Phillips to this, his most recent release from beyond the grave, a total of 60 years has passed, so to try and pinpoint the moment from which his legacy is to be drawn is impossible.

He’s influenced, been written songs for, played live with, covered songs by and simply motivated more artists than any singer in living memory. His signature renditions of other writers’ works are amongst the finest covers ever recorded (more on those later). His music, his words and his performances have touched the hearts and minds of people the world over, people who have no idea and even less concept of what it must have been like to play that audition in front of Sun Records’ head honcho and not only impress him, but assure him that a star was in the process of being born. Cash is, by any estimation and any definition, a legend – his story is one of immense success and crippling trauma – a story with unimaginable peaks and blinding troughs that imbue his songs with a magnificent biographical hue.

It could be successfully argued that the full extent of the influence and legacy of the Man in Black is unquantifiable – much like Elvis Presley, Woodie Guthrie and Robert Johnson, the sounds Cash committed to tape have simply seeped into the world’s collective consciousness. They are constantly being refreshed and updated and brought back into view by Oscar-nominated movies, deluxe box-sets, television specials, themed reissues and the ‘holy grail’ of any artist’s output – the ‘lost’ album.

‘I find it very, very easy to be true
I find myself alone when each day is through
Yes, I’ll admit that I’m a fool for you
Because you’re mine, I walk the line’

Out Among the Stars is one such ‘lost’ album, but unlike classic ‘lost’ albums like The Beach Boys’ greatest sonic achievement Smile, this album wasn’t considered ‘lost’ because very few people knew of its existence. It was made during sessions for one of Cash’s most unloved musical endeavours (and he has plenty of those), his 1980 record The Baron.

The Baron and Out Among the Stars were recorded by Tammy Wynette producer Billy Sherrill, the pioneer of the countrypolitan/Nashville sound style of country music that emphasised polish and sheen over rustic charm. It was a successful sound when used by Wynette and George Jones on smooth, directionless hits like Loving You Could Never Be Better, We’re Gonna Hold On and Golden Ring. You don’t have to listen to those songs; just imagine what they sound like based on those titles, and you’re probably close enough to the real thing.

The facts are thus: Cash became involved with Sherrill when he wasn’t shifting enough copies for his label’s liking. Nowhere near enough. His sales had been steadily declining throughout the ’70s, and he was starting to become a heritage act before his time was up – a horrifying position that any band/singer asked to do a Las Vegas residency is put into (a la Britney Spears). Becoming a heritage act is a death-knell, in most cases, to an artist’s relevance and standing within the wider context of ‘pop’ music.

However, Cash’s work with Sherrill did exactly the opposite of what it was intended to do – the record, The Baron, wasn’t a hit. While he was alive, Cash would never again hit the top of the Billboard charts – the final album released before his death, American IV: The Man Comes Around, was his first non-compilation record to attain Gold certification.

‘The taste of love is sweet when hearts like ours meet
Bound by wild desire, I fell into a Ring of Fire’

Hunting for Cash’s finest moments usually leads directly to one source: Those now-legendary American Recordings, helmed by producer/demi-god/living beard Rick Rubin are a great, possibly the greatest, source of pleasure for Cash fans, and they are his most easily recognisable records to modern audiences. The songs that were written or selected on his behalf are instantly distinguishable, but totally his own.

His cover of Hurt, for example, has fan and songwriter approval – there’s an often-quoted anecdote from Trent Reznor, who wrote the song, where he describes listening to Cash’s version, teary eyed, with Rage Against The Machine’s Zach De La Rocha. From a fan’s perspective, it offers a deeper, biographical context. “Hurt is a song where you hear Cash’s acceptance of his life, both the good and bad. It’s a beautifully sung version, and it seems to me as though he’s singing his own epitaph,” are the thoughts of Cash fan Laura Quinn, who responded to my call for ‘favourite Cash moments’.

Another Cash fan suggested a different cover from the American sessions to be his finest hour. “Cash’s cover of Rusty Cage completely changes the source material (a warped stoner-rock track) into a dark country number,” said Sophie Watts. And of course, she too is correct. Personally, my favourite and most-listened to Cash songs are Cry! Cry! Cry! And Ain’t No Grave (Gonna Hold This Body Down). It just goes to show that Cash’s ability to change the material he is working with is an almost alchemic trait that was used to great effect by Rubin to make Cash relevant to Gen-Xers and beyond.

It’s always been Cash’s ability to manipulate the tracks he’s written – and those he hasn’t – that has made him stand out amongst the country stars of the past. His ability to take something completely alien, something that didn’t come from his head or his guitar, and to turn it into something golden hasn’t gone unnoticed by critics (and fans).

When you think about your personal favourite, be it Folsom Prison Blues, Get Rhythm, I Walk The Line, Ring Of Fire, God’s Gonna Cut You Down, The Man Comes Around, I Won’t Back Down… just consider whether Cash brings anything extra to them, any undefinable quality that makes them completely his own. You will surely find that he does. It’s his voice, and his interpretations of his source material that makes listening to him a dream.

What Cash’s voice is able to do with an otherwise uninspiring set of songs on Out Among The Stars is both surprising and confounding. Surprising because the album feels coherent, and plays well; confounding because Columbia rejected the album in its original form back in 1980. So in some ways, it makes a lot of sense that this album should see the light of day, especially due to the compiler of the collection being Johnny’s son, John Carter Cash.

‘Well, look down yonder, Gabriel
Put your feet on the land and sea
But Gabriel, don’t you blow your trumpet
Until you hear from me’

The first song on the collection is the title track, Out Among The Stars, which was written by Olivia Newton John and KISS collaborator Adam Mitchell. The track was also recorded by Cash’s Highwaymen bandmate and country superstar Waylon Jennings, and it was also the title track on Merle Haggard’s 1987 record. The Cash version found here has a sprightlier, rootsier feel than the plaintive, polished Haggard effort. It has a signature thump to the rhythm, and Cash’s customary staccato delivery.

The second track, Baby Ride Easy, is a duet with June Carter Cash, and their trademark vocal harmonisation and call-and-response partnership is striking (and really quite cute) in this setting. It’s a lively, upbeat recording of a Richard Dobson number, and the lyrics are simply charming. Johnny: “If I ran the country”/June: “I’d be your first lady”, June: “If your lovin’ is good”/Johnny: “And your cookin’ ain’t greasy”/Both: “We’ll chuck the chuck wagon and wheel right away.” There’s a killer guitar solo too.

The tombstone-country of She Used To Love Me A Lot is very similar to David Allan Coe’s ghostly rendition, but Cash’s vocal brings a perkier feel to the track. Coe’s bassier timbre contrasts with Cash’s wispier delivery, but both are worth your exploring. It was also released as a taster for this project earlier in the year, such is its potency.

The fourth number, the love song After All, was a moderate hit for Ed Bruce in 1983, but Cash’s performance is against a stripped-down musical backdrop. The two versions aren’t even remotely comparable – the austere production on the track presented here is completely different to Bruce’s dense, throw-the-kitchen-sink-at-it performance.

The second duet of the album fills the fifth slot on the record: Cash recorded the country standard I’m Movin’ On as a duet with best pal Waylon Jennings, and their white-hot rockabilly accompaniment is absolutely sublime, a candidate for the pick of the album. If I Told You Who It Was is, frankly, amazing – the jolly, ebullient vibe Cash imbues the track with is brilliant.

The first Cash original fills the seventh slot on the record – it’s called Call Your Mother, and it’s a signature country break-up number. It’s one of the finest cuts here, and the glorious chorus is a charming ‘fuck you’ to the ex-lover he’s addressing. “When you get a chance would you please call your mother/And thank her for the good years that we had/Gently break the news that you don’t love me/And give my best regards to your good old Dad.”

I Drove Her Out Of My Mind is superb – the honky-tonk rhythm and bitter lyrics are a fitting combination. The jumpy, jittery, rolling feel and angelic backing vocals are superb, and you can find the stand-out lines of the album here: “They’ll say Johnny Cash was quite a smash down here in Chattanooga/Last night when he drove her out of his mind/Yeah that Cadillac dealer’s in for a big surprise too – $99 down, $99 dollars a month/Yeah it’s gonna be just GAWJUS HAHAHA.” You can imagine him smiling a dog-gone grin when he sang those lines, and boy, what a thrill it is to hear them.

The swaying, lovestruck vibe is brought back in for Tennessee. Cash brings his most earnest delivery to the tune, and it’s easy to imagine him thinking of June when he sang us-against-the-world songs like this. Rock N Roll Shoes was written by an Englishman besotted by Confederate legend: Paul Kennerley worked with Cash on star-studded concept album The Legend Of Jesse James in 1980. It’s another track that seems to be made for Cash’s weighty vocal delivery, and it’s easy to see why he chose to record the track.

Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time is the final duet of the album, and it’s a lovely duet with June. Another cut filled with classic country themes, the lyrics revolve around a loving relationship – and they both convey the message of the song perfectly, as though it were made for them. The final track is I Came to Believe, which rounds out the collection nicely. It’s a delicate ballad, where Cash explores the themes of hope and religion. It’s the only song that deals with those themes, which makes it stand out – Cash was renowned for his devotional music, so it’s nice to see him sing about his Lord with such blissful piety.

‘Soon your sugar-daddies will all be gone.
You’ll wake up some cold day and find you’re alone.
You’ll call to me but I’m gonna tell you: “Bye, bye, bye,”
When I turn around and walk away, you’ll cry, cry, cry’

With hindsight and a large dollop of cynicism, it’s easy to see why this record was rejected. The effect of Cash’s voice was lost on jaded record executives, who had been hearing his voice for 25 years by the time they were hearing these songs. However, the relevance and importance of these recordings is also clear to see, because without the work of diligent archivists and sympathetic compilers, records that are ‘in the vault’ would never see the light of day.

It’s only right, and only fair, that an artist should have his full creative output exposed to an audience, and whether the audience chooses to return to the records or never touch them again is entirely their decision. The listener spends the entire first listen of Among the Stars wondering “How the hell did this get rejected anyhow?” Trust me, folks – the second listen is where the magic happens.

Records like this don’t sully the legacy of the Man in Black, they completely cement them. An album of this quality was turned down by record executives only to be unleashed on a whole new generation of eager fans that have heard the magic he was capable of. Without the American sessions, it’s unlikely that this record would have seen the light of day. What a cryin’ shame that would have been. A fantastic archive release from one of the world’s greatest ever singers, this record is essential listening for fans of Cash and fans of country music in general.

Johnny Cash’s Out Among The Stars is out through Columbia/Legacy on 31 March 2014.

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