Posthumous releases by acclaimed musicians are as reliable as me having a cup of coffee in the morning. Typically there is a rush released album shortly after the artist bids farewell to this mortal coil, perhaps it even retains the quality the artist was known for. Each subsequent album dips in quality. For every Tupac Shakur, there are a few exceptions to the rule. John Lennon’s after death recording career maintained his exacting standards, and it seems that Johnny Cash is following suit. Not counting the Bootleg series, Out Among The Stars is the 3rd full studio album released since his death, and the 1st in over 4 years.
The roots of this record harken back to dark days for The Man in Black – the mid 80’s. Gone were the chart topping hits from the outlaw country giant – country music had moved on to an over produced, less raw sound. Most biographies of Johnny Cash will also indicate that the music he was producing during this time period was of sub par quality – I fully disagree. The tunes may have been slightly more polished, but he was still churning out songs that retained his high standards. Out Among The Stars is being marketed as a complete unreleased album produced by Billy Sherrill, and in that context it should be viewed as a companion album to 1981’s The Baron which was also produced by Sherrill. It really is a shame that this new record is being released 10 1/2 years after the death of Cash – it is one of his strongest records from the 80’s, and wouldn’t sound entirely out-of-place with his Rick Rubin produced recordings from the last period of his recording career.
The title track opens the album with a bouncy strummed country folk sound. Production is tasteful, focus is on Cash’s voice – and he is fine voice throughout the record. She Used to Love Me a Lot is the single from the record, and it is easy to see why – sparse musical accompaniment, Cash’s voice driving home the melancholy of the lyrics. This was originally a hit for David Allan Coe in 1984, but Johnny Cash’s was recorded first. Cash brings a sadness to the song that was lacking from Coe’s version, though I loved his version as well. The version of I’m Movin’ On features Waylon Jennings and is a more lively version than the one recorded with Rick Rubin over a decade and half later. If I Told You Who It Was is a hilarious up tempo country song that tells a story about an unlikely meeting with a female country star. Johnny Cash sounds like he is having a lot of fun with this one. Out of the two original compositions on the record, I like I Came to Believe the best. Tasteful strings back Johnny Cash up as he pours his heart out in a spiritual lament “I came to believe that I needed help to get by / In childlike faith I gave in and gave him a try / And I came to believe in a power much higher than I”. The album closes out with an Elvis Costello remix of She Used to Love Me a Lot which gives the song an even darker vibe. June Carter Cash features on Baby Ride Easy and Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time and the obvious chemistry with Johnny is a delight to hear.
In short, this is an unexpected treat – an almost masterpiece from The Man in Black 10 1/2 years after he left us. At times sparse, at times reflecting the time period in which it was recorded – this is Johnny Cash sounding happy, relaxed, and giving us some great tunes. I’ll take that over almost anything.
Verdict: I Still Love Him a Lot
For Fans of: Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen, Waylon Jennings
- Out Among the Stars
- Baby Ride Easy
- She Used to Love Me a Lot
- After All
- I’m Movin’ On
- If I Told You Who It Was
- Call Your Mother
- I Drove Her Out of My Mind
- Rock and Roll Shoes
- Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time
- I Came to Believe
- She Used to Love Me a Lot (Elvis Costello remix)