Critic's pick: Johnny Cash, 'Out Among the Stars'

Contributing Music WriterApril 21, 2014 

Leave it to The Man in Black to consider suicide as acceptable collateral damage for ending a doomed romance.

On I Drove Her Out of My Mind, one of 12 aborted '80s songs resurrected for the new album Out Among the Stars, Cash, who died in 2003, imagines, with no small amount of glee, driving himself and his deposed beloved off a mountainside in a fresh-off-the-lot Cadillac ("she'll see all seven states as we drive to the pearly gates"). The thrill that Cash confesses over Billy Sherrill's lushly arranged vocal backdrop is alone worth the price of the album: "It's gonna be gaw-geous."

Save for a pair of tunes from 1981, Out Among the Stars gives new life to Cash and Sherrill's unfinished sessions from April and May 1984 (exactly three decades ago). These were hardly Cash's glory years. At the time, his label (Columbia/Epic) was home to several contemporaries, most notably Merle Haggard and George Jones. All were falling increasingly out of favor with country radio and corporate Nashville, both of which were focusing on younger, more pop-friendly talent. The result was a series of phoned-in albums by the vets — recordings marred by dull or desperate production, equally drab material and, worst of all, vocal performances that sounded as if Cash and his cronies had essentially called it a day.

It's far from a classic, but Out Among the Stars outdistances anything else Cash was committing to vinyl at the time. The record's most immediate attribute is his singing. Unlike the increasingly frail but tremendously emotive vocals that gave Cash's final albums with Rick Rubin such sage, genre-less brilliance, Out Among the Stars returns us to a voice of comparatively youthful vigor. The singer's son, John Carter Cash, who co-produced these newly completed recordings, reveals in the liner notes that his father slid back into pill addiction in the early '80s but had recovered by the 1984 sessions. That info makes the darker corners of Out Among the Stars seem all the more harrowing.

Leading that pack is the Adam Mitchell-written title tune, in which a Texas liquor store robbery ends in bloodshed and an eerie balance of release and shame. Needless to say, this presents prime fixings for the stoic reverence of Cash's singing. Hearing modern-day Americana greats Buddy Miller and Jerry Douglas flesh out these recordings ups the thrill even more.

Not everything works. If I Told You Who It Was is pure country corn, and an ambient-style Elvis Costello remix of She Used to Love Me a Lot is full of good intentions but comes off as a gimmicky match for Cash's epic tenor. Enjoy Out Among the Stars instead as a modest vindication for a period in a monumental career that has long gathered dust.

Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.

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