“Out Among the Stars,” a posthumous new album of previously unreleased Johnny Cash recordings presents a dilemma for fans of the Man in Black. To be a Johnny Cash fan is to love him, unconditionally, like the perfect father all children crave. His low rumble of a voice, his passionate connection with audiences, his incredible skill at assembling songs that haunt or inspire or simply please, all contribute to this image of an almost divine figure. However, Johnny Cash would be the first to point out that no man is perfect, he included. This record is an example of that imperfection.
For fans, much like when a family member dies, there is a tendency to gloss over or deify a performer and say that everything they ever did was important and “the best.” It’s this inherent desire on the part of the listener that is the biggest weakness of the album- the public expectation of excellence tempered by the reality of a performer at a lower point in his career producing material that just wasn’t his best. There’s no “nice” or fan-friendly way to put it. “Out Among the Stars” is fine. Just fine. It’s not revelatory; it’s not terribly original, it’s not even very well recorded in some places. But it’s not bad either (how can it be, it’s Johnny Cash!).
Recorded throughout 1984 the album is a product of a strange time in country music and an unremarkable period for Johnny Cash’s career. The rise in popularity of films like “Urban Cowboy” gave way to the beginning of “Country-Pop” and distractingly overproduced country music. Often when someone says that they don’t like country, they’re thinking of 80s country. Simultaneously, the “outlaw” style of country was on the rise. Most people think of Johnny Cash and outlaw country as synonymous but it wasn’t until later that he took full ownership of that movement. This album is interesting from a music anthropology sense because it does show Johnny Cash attempting to straddle both lines before he fully committed to leading the outlaw country style.
Tracks like “After All” and “Tennessee” are jarring because they’re so reminiscent of Conway Twitty’s televised specials (with the big hair, pastel suit and teeny tiny wand microphone) that they seem almost farcical. Much of the album is overproduced and interestingly, it’s the overdubbing that John Carter Cash arranged with present-day artists that take away something. For instance, even though she’s blood, does Carlene Carter really need to back up her mother on “Baby Ride Easy”? It is still a fun duet from performers who really loved one another and enjoyed performing together and a little stronger than their second duet later in the album “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time.”
The two best tracks on the album are the title opener, “Out Among the Stars” and “I’m Movin’ On” a duet with Waylon Jennings. The duet with Jennings is Cash’s embrace of the outlaw country movement and despite an oddly echo-y quality to the recording it’s a fun, up tempo number closer to what fans attribute to the Man in Black. The title track has the story telling quality to the tenor and lyrics that really was a signature of Johnny Cash throughout his career. One can’t help but listen to it and feel that it would be an even better tune if it had been recorded during one of the “American” sessions where his voice was at its deepest growl. With subject matter as grave as a kid deliberately botching a robbery so that the police will gun him down, it has the potential to be as haunting as “I Hung My Head” but doesn’t quite reach that level.
Again, this is not a bad album by any means but it does not add to the legacy of Johnny Cash. It does not, however, take anything away from his legacy which is a blessing. Johnny Cash was not a perfect man and his imperfections are what have endeared him to millions of people. In his autobiography he even said that these recordings were not groundbreaking, “We tried, sort of, but we certainly didn’t give it our best.” What makes Cash so wonderful though is that even when he might just be phoning it in, he’s still 10 times better than anyone else.