Reviewed by Dave Brassington
Johnny Cash often seemed like he was granite in human form, so it's odd to think that such a giant once had his career derailed by John Travolta. The 1980 hit film Urban Cowboy accelerated country music's long drift toward music that was soft, vacant and overproduced - driving Cash to dismiss the "Urban Cowboy fad" as "mechanical-bull manure." But the need to get himself back on country radio made him swallow his pride and in 1981 and again in 1984 Cash went into the studio with producer Billy Sherrill, one of the key figures in the lush, string-filled "Nashville sound". In Cash: The Autobiography the singer/songwriter wrote, "We tried, sort of, but we certainly didn't give it our best." The Cash/Sherrill collaborations were shelved by Columbia Records and the veteran went on to record with other producers though in truth they were mediocre. As we all know, Johnny's epic American Recordings caused the world to recognize the sheer enormity of Cash's talents and after his death an absolute flood of re-issue and compilations have appeared with Columbia in 2012 issuing a 20 album box set. And now they've rescued these tracks out of the archives. You might expect 'Out Among The Stars' to be a contract-fulfilling sleepwalk. Instead, it proves that even at his most uninterested, Cash couldn't help but make a record with weight, moral complexity and grim humour.
The album begins, strategically, with a violent story song. In the title track, a down-on-his-luck guy commits an odd form of suicide; deliberately botching a liquor-store robbery. The character-in-song feels "a great relief" knowing the police will soon shoot him dead. Compared with the maudlin version Merle Haggard cut a few years later, Cash's take is stoic and resigned as he sings, "I robbed a man in Texas, just so I could die." As with most Cash albums, this one ranges across styles, including a crisp honky-tonk duet with Waylon Jennings on Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On", and "If I Told You Who It Was", a coy novelty song about a fan who has a fling with his "favorite female country star" after he finds her stranded ("Her tire, unlike her body, was very flat"). On the fragile, gospel-touched ballad "I Came To Believe", one of two songs Cash wrote here, he praises God as the only salvation from a life of despair.
These recordings aren't exactly as he cut them with Sherrill. Elite Nashville players have been overdubbed on dobro and fiddle making for a more traditional sound. "She Used To Love Me A Lot" begins with hope and ends in dramatic remorse. Cash sounds most alive on "I Drove Her Out Of My Mind", the confession of a pilled-up madman who says goodbye to his ex by steering them both off a cliff. "It's gonna be just gorgeous!" he cackles, before a choir softly and perversely repeats the phrase "to the pearly gates." Cash sang about people who'd stumbled - which he often did, too. In 'Out Among The Stars' liner notes, his son, John, reveals that Cash had slid back into drug addiction circa 1980, which hints at how much autobiography there was in "I Came To Believe". With five great tracks that augment Cash's legacy, this is an uncertain record driven by perseverance - the quality that kept him going to his magnificent renaissance in the '90s. It has to be said that this archive rescue mission doesn't give fans Cash at his very best. But some of it is pretty good and it does beg the intriguing question, have Columbia got any other unreleased recordings up their sleeve? Or is this it?
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