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Johnny Cash’s Lost Decade

Johnny Cash, 1972.jpg

JP Laffont/Sygma/Corbis

Johnny Cash performing at “Explo 72,” The Great Rally for Jesus, Dallas, Texas, June 1972

When Johnny Cash died in September 2003, he was in the midst of a career renaissance that had begun nearly a decade earlier, when he recorded a series of albums with the producer Rick Rubin. The Rubin albums were prized for their stark arrangements of traditional folk and gospel songs as well as contemporary rock songs written by artists like U2 and Soundgarden. American Recordings (1994), Unchained (1996), American III: Solitary Man (2000), and American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002) all had restrained instrumentation, emphasizing Cash’s voice and guitar. Many of the vocal takes on the first album were recorded in Rubin’s living room, in intimate, rambling sessions that gave listeners the sense that Cash was singing directly to them.

The most well-known of the American songs is Cash’s version of “Hurt,” originally written and performed by Nine Inch Nails. Cash starred in a video for the song, filmed in his home and a mausoleum-like personal museum, which made his deteriorating health clear. According to Robert Hilburn’s excellent biography, Johnny Cash: The Life, “When Cash showed the video to people around him, several, including [his wife] June, advised him not to allow the video to be released.” But it was widely praised, earning six MTV Video Music Award nominations and a Grammy. With these recordings Cash had killed off the image of the washed-up singer who not long before had been shilling for Taco Bell and playing half-full shows at the Wayne Newton theater in Branson, Missouri.

The extraordinary popularity of the albums Cash made with Rubin helps explain the release of Out Among The Stars, a new album consisting of songs from “lost” recording sessions that took place mostly in 1984. Everything about the album’s promotion is meant to evoke the Rubin period, from the stern-looking black and white portrait of Cash on the album cover to the music video for “She Used to Love Me A Lot,” which combines shots of apocalyptic landscapes with archival footage of Cash. Yet these sessions, in tone and sound, are nearly the opposite of the pared-down records in the American series. Stars has the slick, maximalist sound common to most mainstream country from the 1980s—bright, bouncing bass-lines, swells of canned strings. What’s more, it was recorded during a period widely considered the nadir of Cash’s career.

So why release it? One reason is that Cash’s work in the 1980s is relatively unknown. Cash began at Sun Records in the mid-1950s, where he recorded some of his most enduring songs, including “I Walk the Line,” “Big River,” and the original version of “Folsom Prison Blues.” Despite a pill addiction that nearly killed him, Cash was a star throughout the 1960s. But for the next twenty years, as he toured incessantly, took film and television roles that ranged from inconsequential to dreadful, and lapsed intermittently into drug and alcohol abuse, he released little music that could be counted among his best work. While the country audience shifted toward Cash-inspired “outlaw” singers such as Waylon Jennings, Cash began making slicker and often explicitly religious albums, touring with a family roadshow and appearing at Billy Graham events. In the mid-1980s, he was dropped from his longtime label Columbia after years of poorly selling albums.

Most of the songs on Out Among The Stars were recorded shortly before that break with Columbia. According to Robert Hilburn, the sessions went unreleased because Cash was unhappy with the reception of “Chicken in Black,” an insane novelty single about Cash’s brain being put into a chicken, which was recorded, like the Stars sessions, with producer Billy Sherrill. But despite its questionable provenance, Stars is more than a posthumous cash-in. Much of it is similar in spirit and style to albums such as Johnny 99 from 1983 and Silver from 1979. Sure, they’re grab-bags—on Johnny 99, haunting Bruce Springsteen covers coexist with troubling oddities like “God Bless Robert E. Lee”—but they’re better than is generally acknowledged. Silver includes the convincingly soul-sick hangover tune “Lonesome to the Bone” and a charming, loose take on Billy Joe Shaver’s “Lately I’ve Been Leanin’ Toward the Blues,” among other gems. Cash’s mid-1980s work suffers most of all from a lack of cohesion in mood and tone. By all accounts, Cash was not a consistently good judge of his own strengths and weaknesses, a problem that was tempered by Rubin’s strong curatorial instincts.

Though Out Among the Stars may be overproduced, it still highlights and supports his strong singing. Cash’s lively rendition of the title song (with its perfect opening line, “It’s midnight at a liquor store in Texas”) is superior to Merle Haggard’s subdued version from 1987. It’s classic Cash material, the story of a small-time criminal who commits suicide by cop. The lyrics are notable for considering the police officers’ perspective—“He knows that when they’re shooting at this loser/they’ll be aiming at the demons in their lives.” Crime and punishment brought out the best in Cash.

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Johnny Cash: Out Among the Stars

Other notable songs include “Tennessee,” a gloriously over-the-top tribute to Cash’s adopted home state, with vocal contributions from “the full student body of Sumner Academy, K-8, Gallatin, TN,” and “Call Your Mother,” a tongue-in-cheek divorce song written by Cash, who knew about that subject. Of course, it’s not all great. On “I’m Movin’ On,” a Hank Snow classic performed by Cash with Waylon Jennings, the vocals sound rushed and tentative, and “Baby Ride Easy,” a duet with June Carter Cash, can’t quite overcome its tired premise. (Johnny: “If I drove a truck,” June: “And I were a waitress…”) “If I Told You Who It Was” is a “comedy” song that’s similar to, and just as awful as, “Chicken in Black,” and “After All” is the kind of soupy ballad that only George Jones could have salvaged.

The best song on the album may be “I Came to Believe,” a gospel song by Cash with understated lyrics and a gorgeous piano-led arrangement. Nearly twenty years later, Cash recorded the song again in a near-whisper during one of the last sessions of his life. That version, released posthumously on American V: A Hundred Highways, sounds haunted by death and is marked by the singer’s audibly diminished powers. I’d keep the 1984 version: clear and confident about the world beyond, but happy to stay in this one for a while longer.

Johnny Cash: I Came to Believe

Johnny Cash: Out Among the Stars is available on Legacy Recordings.

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