It feels so surreal, listening to this newly unearthed collection of Johnny Cash songs recorded with legendary country producer Billy Sherrill in 1981 and 1984. Like most of his fans, by now I’d simply thought that everything he’d ever recorded that he would have wanted released was already released. And so it was a very pleasant surprise when I heard about this album.
When this release was recorded, Cash’s career might as well have been over. He’d been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame four years earlier, but he’d only had one top 10 hit since. The majority of his ’80’s releases hadn’t charted at all. He was so desperate for attention that he released a novelty song about having his brain transplanted into a chicken called “The Chicken In Black.” No kidding, though, of course, I wish that I was. And since he was reduced to doing such crap at the time, I’m glad this wasn’t released back then because it almost certainly would have been ignored. Even longtime fans had given up on him by then. Tragic, but true. And so I’m positive that this album is getting far more attention and critical acclaim now than it would have if it were released in 1984.
If I understand correctly, some instrumentation was added to this album last year. And I have a hunch that some instrumentation was removed because I recall reading about the album having a lot of synth when news about it first came to light. But I haven’t noticed much synth, if any, on the album as it was recently released. I’d be quite curious to hear the version with synth, assuming it exists, though. Partially because I wonder what a synthy Johnny Cash album would sound like and partially because I just plain love synth. Makes me wish they’d released this as a double album with the version they’ve now released on one disc and the version with synth on the other. Even if there was no synth, I’d still be curious to hear the album before the new instrumentation was added last year.
The album opens with the title track, “Out Among the Stars,” a lyrically dark tune about a boy who couldn’t find a job but found a gun and, well, it’s all downhill from there. The ironic thing about this number is that the music feels generally positive during the verses and entirely uplifting during the chorus. That said, the lyrics of the chorus are much more upbeat than the verses: “Oh how many travelers get weary / Bearing both their burdens and their scars / Don’t you think they’d love to start all over / And fly like eagles out among the stars.” It’s Cash at his very best, telling tales with his sobering lyrics but in such a way that his songs are catchy and suck the listener in at the same time.
The darkest tune on the album is easily the potent ballad “She Used to Love Me a Lot,” another song that tells a tale, which features music that is as melancholic as its lyrics. The first verse: “I saw her through the window today / She was sitting in the Silver Spoon Cafe / I started to keep going / But something made me stop / She used to love me a lot.” It’s an eerie song that has Cash running into an old flame, having a little conversation with her, thinking that he could rescue her from her melancholia, but then she gets up and leaves, uninterested, before he can suggest getting back together. “She just left me standing there / I’d never been so shocked,” begins the final chorus.
There are two duets with Cash’s wife, June Carter Cash. The first is the up-tempo, danceable “Baby Ride Easy,” while the second is the beautiful mid-tempo ballad “Don’t You Think Our Time Will Come.” There’s also a duet with Waylon Jennings, a cover of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” that was recorded in one take on a day when Jennings just happened to drop by the studio.
I suppose it could be synth that begins “After All,” but it also could be an organ or something of that nature. Regardless, it’s lovely and the song is a precious, slow burning ballad. “After all this time / You’re still a friend of mine / So I believe in someone after all,” goes the extra subtle chorus of the song that finds Cash being longtime friends with a woman who was once his special lady.
Also noteworthy track is the chilling “I Drove Her Out of My Mind,” which finds a guy who’s apparently been dumped talking the woman into one last date… And then he drives them right off of a mountain. “I’ll take her on a secret cruise right off of Lookout Mountain,” Cash sings. It’s slightly amusing when he actually names himself and sings about what they’ll say about him when he’s dead, and there’s definitely a sarcastic sense of humor about the song, but it’s still creepy any way you slice it.
I’d tell you about more of the songs on the album, but I feel like I’m spoiling it for you already. This isn’t an album to read reviews about, as much as it’s been fun writing about it. This is an album to buy and play alone in a room, attentively experiencing it.