First, a little background. The first album I ever bought was a cassette of “Johnny Cash’s Greatest Hits.” The most influential television shows of my childhood were The Muppet Show, The Dukes of Hazzard, Hee Haw (my dad’s favorite), and Little House on the Prairie. Johnny Cash appeared or sang on all of them. I own every original Johnny Cash album (except one). This is the first new album in years that I feel qualified to review.
When I meet someone who claims to be a Johnny Cash fan, I always ask “which one?” Johnny Cash didn’t just have one career, he had several. Do you like:
- 1950’s rockabilly Johnny Cash
- 1960’s-early 1970’s prison concert Johnny Cash
- Johnny cash who recorded audio travelogues of the Holy Land
- 1980’s forgotten Johnny Cash
- Early 1990’s Mercury Johnny Cash
- 1990’s-2000’s Rick Ruben reinvented/MTV Unplugged/old guy about to die Johnny Cash
I’ve found most of the people who say they like Johnny Cash are talking about either the prison concerts or the Rick Rubin American Johnny Cash. They want the anti-establishment Johnny Cash but not the JC who guest starred on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. They appreciate his work with Bob Dylan, but not the Statler Brothers.
I started listening to Johnny Cash during this period. My first original Johnny Cash album was the 1982 album Adventures Of Johnny Cash. This was recorded between the sessions that are included on the new album. 1980’s Johnny Cash is often reverb heavy with background singers and over-engineered production that can sometimes drown out his powerful voice. That is what made the American albums so striking–by stripping down the production they reveal the true power of Cash’s voice.
So in some ways it is understandable that Columbia Records (now Sony) lost interest in Cash during the 80’s. His albums didn’t sell very well, and even lamer music like Conway Twitty and Kenny Rogers was more popular during those years.
But there are some gems from this period. “Georgia on a Fast Train” from the Adventures of Johnny Cash is a great song, and the two Springsteen covers on Johnny 99 are arguably better than the Springsteen versions. “Highway Patrolman” is like an entire movie in a five minute song.
So the story behind Out Among The Stars is that Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, found this complete album while sorting through tapes after his parents death. John Carter has made some questionable decisions with his father’s legacy, like authorizing the remix of “I walk the Line” by Snoop Dogg, so there were concerns that this may be a move to milk money out of Cash’s legacy by releasing subpar music that his father never intended to release. So I wanted to listen to it several times before reviewing it.
I also wanted to try to review it in context of the other releases around that time, so I went back and re-listened to the albums that came chronologically before and after it was recorded.
The cover of the record is very good. He’s the Man in Black. It’s black and white. Cool photos. Will look god on your shelf.
- I’m Movin’ On. This is a duet with Waylon Jennings covering the classic Hank Snow song. I could listen to an entire album of this. Too bad their duet album Heroes didn’t have more songs like this.
- She Used To Love Me a lot. This song has a very haunting sound, and a remix by Elvis Costello is included in the end. This song stands up to anything else he sang in the decade.
- I drove her out of my mind. This is a song about driving his woman off a mountain in a Cadillac. This song has the best lyric of any song on the album: “I’ll take her on a scenic cruise right off of Lookout Mountain, ‘cause she said I never took her out when she was mine.”
- I Came To Believe. This song is also on “American V,” and it fits the Johnny Cash story. In some ways it sounds like a 12 step program, but when he says “nothing worked out when I handled it all on my own, and each time I failed, it made me feel twice as alone,” you believe him. One of the things I always admired about Johnny Cash was how open he was about his faith.
- After All. This is just a forgettable song.
- If I Told You Who It Was. This song made me laugh when I heard it, but I think that the joke of this song dates it pretty significantly, and that most modern listeners won’t get it. Sounds like a 1980’s Ray Stevens song.
The other songs are enjoyable, but not remarkable. So on the whole, this is a pretty good album that fits well in the Johnny Cash catalog.
If I was to rank it against other Cash albums, here is where I would put it:
Better than “The Baron” or “Johnny 99,” equal with “Adventures of Johnny Cash”
Early 1990’s Mercury albums:
Better than most, not quite as good as the criminally underrated Water From The Wells Of Home.
I would rank Out Among the Stars lower than American I, II, and IV, but higher than III, V, and VI.