The 1980s was probably the least successful decade of Johnny Cash's long and storied career, but his only album from that era in my collection until now -- 1987's Johnny Cash Is Coming To Town -- held up well then and still does. And the only time I saw the man in black perform was in the mid-'80s, and I thought he was great.
So I'm not as surprised as many other people seem to be by the quality of the recently released "lost" Cash album, Out Among The Stars. Its 12 songs, recorded in 1981 and 1984 and originally produced by CBS Records Nashville A&R head Billy Sherrill, are definitely of a high enough grade that they should have been released 30 years ago. But, had they been, there's no way that they would have had the same commercial impact as they have now -- with Out Among The Stars debuting at #3 in the U.S. and #2 in Canada.
Cash parted ways with Columbia Records after 25 years in 1985 and he hadn't had an album chart in the top 100 since 1971. It wasn't until 1994, when he began his association with producer Rick Rubin with the first in the series of American Recordings albums, that he started registering with consumers again.
While Cash may have been largely ignored in the early '80s, he was by no means a has been. And Lost Among The Stars proves it.
"Baby Ride Easy" sits easily alongside the classic duets Cash recorded with his wife June, and she can also be heard on "Don't You Think It's Come Our Time?" Waylon Jennings joins Cash on the Hank Snow hit "I'm Movin' On," which predates their teaming up in The Highwaymen but which would have fit well on one of that group's three LPs.
Cash's familiar speak-singing style adds depth to "She Used To Love Me A Lot," which is on the album twice -- in its original version and as a bonus track produced by Elvis Costello. You should definitely check out the recently created video for the song, made by film director John Hillcoat. While it may not be as moving and powerful as the clip for "Hurt" that was shot shortly before his death in 2003, it packs a punch and vividly captures Cash's legacy.
Cash's penchant for story songs is shown on "I Drove Her Out Of My Mind" and "Tennessee," which features a children's chorus. The playfulness of past hits like "One Piece At A Time" and "Boy Named Sue" shines through on "If I Told You Who It Was," which features a cameo from fellow country legend Minnie Pearl.
And if there was ever any doubt, Cash proves he's equally comfortable in his "Rock and Roll Shoes" as he is writing and singing gospel numbers like "I Came To Believe."
Cash was originally backed on these tracks by some A-list Nashville session musicians, and the restored versions also include contributions from the likes the likes of Marty Stuart on guitar and mandolin, Buddy Miller on guitar, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Sam Bush on mandolin and Carlene Carter on harmony vocals. The musicianship is as solid as you could want and is further proof that this project wasn't just a slap-dash attempt to cash in.
I don't know if John Carter Cash will find any more previously unreleased material of this magnitude in the family archives, but this will suffice if he doesn't. It's always nice to have Cash on hand.