Among the Stars doesn’t supplant Cash’s best, but serves reminder of his legendary status
Usually, the words ‘lost albums’ signal nothing short of a personal sentiment of ‘don’t waste your time’. However, when a legend posthumously releases a lost LP, the tune changes. Johnny Cash has released multiple posthumous albums, most of which that showcases the singer’s gruff vocals in his final years. While these releases have magic (particularly a cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” from American IV: The Man Comes Around, which was released while Cash was still alive), they don’t represent the exceptional artist at his strongest. The 2014 release of Out Among the Stars, a lost album from 1981, gives country music enthusiasts the opportunity to hear the true beauty, and commanding nature of Cash’s baritone. Sure it’s a compilation and certainly lacks a “Ring of Fire” caliber hit (most albums do), but Out Among the Stars does a fine job of showcasing Cash’s legacy.
“Out Among the Stars” sets the tone of the album from the onset. That tone is one of soundness, and even more notably, one where Cash’s vocals are clearer and more youthful. Hearing Cash without any diminished pipes is a highlight in itself, not to mention how well paced and performed the title track is. “Baby Ride Easy” doesn’t disappoint, bringing June Carter Cash into the mix. The pace is spryer than the opener, instantly drawing the listener in. The chemistry between husband and wife is indescribable, while the mix of string instruments further incites excellence. Not missing a beat, the darker “She Used to Love Me A Lot” may lack the enthusiasm of the previous duo, but Cash remains on ‘autopilot’. Among the best musical features of “She Used to Love Me A Lot” is the key change; too few artists employ this impactful compositional intensifier.
“After All” is a warmer cut, with Cash continuing to flex his vocal muscles in that brilliant, booming lower register. Pacing again plays a impactful role, with more instrumentation entering the mix upon the second verse; the combination of guitar, acoustic and electric pianos is “simply beautiful”, as Al Green would put it. Throw in another legend with Waylon Jennings guesting on “I’m Movin’ On” and things continue to be impressive for Cash. The vintage country sound, the vocals harmonies (between the two), and excellent guitar solo are among notable characteristics. As good as “I’m Movin’ On” is, “If I Told You Who It Was” is even better, which Cash taking a spoken word approach to the verses of the Bobby Braddock/Curly Putnam penned tune. Among personal favorite lines is “I told her I got all your record ma’am / she smiled and said well I be damned / she said you’re kind of cute feller, wanna mess around?” While the word likely wasn’t in effect in the 80s, Cash definitely has “swag”.
“Call Your Mother,” continues Cash’s consistency, highlighted by lyrical centerpiece “When you get a chance would you please call your mother…” Besides the quality of the song itself, structurally, it is fantastic how the composition uses instrumental interludes (space) between the verses. The practice may be old school, but it certainly has some redeeming qualities. “I Drove Her Out of My Mind” may not be the effort’s standouts per se, but continues to show an overall soundness. Cash delivers lyrics like “Cause I wrote a note that called it suicide / but my epitaph will say ‘he killed his pain yesterday / when he finally drove that woman off his mind’” memorably on this Gary Gentry/ Hillman Hall number. “Tennessee” is right in there as well, and though it has its element of predictability, the addition of choral vocals towards the end definitely keeps things fresh and the listener engaged.
“Rock and Roll Shoes” successfully combines country and rock cues, sporting that vintage sound. Cash remains on top, with little to nitpick or criticize. A second collaboration with wife June Carter Cash is a bigger draw as “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time” is nothing short of brilliant. The rhythmic machine of the string arrangement further incites a truly inseparable vocal chemistry, even more than the first duet. “I Came To Believe” has a tough act to follow, but the southern-gospel tinged country cut stands tall with its slower tempo and six-eight groove. “And I came to believe in a power much higher than I”, Cash sings on the refrain. “I came to believe that I needed help to get by.” Amen, amen, amen! “She Used to Love Me a Lot (JC/EC Version)” is quite an interesting mix compared to the previous version. The best way to describe the closer is as unique.
Ultimately, Out Among the Stars will never be considered to be the ‘cream of the crop’ of an illustrious discography for Cash. The compilation does, however, cement Cash’s status as one of the greatest artists of all-time, regardless of genre. Additionally, it is a reminder of country’s heyday and how much the sound has changed overall. It won’t light up country and certainly not pop radio – that’s not the aim – but it is a must-have for the music collector with an appreciation for veteran artists/classic music.
“Out Among the Stars”; “After All”; “If I Told You Who It Was”; “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time”; “I Came to Believe”
Johnny Cash • Out Among the Stars • Columbia Nashville Legacy • US Release Date: March 25, 2014