When it comes to settling an estate in the wake of a parent’s passing, the routine is more or less the same for any child shouldered with this sad responsibility. For John Carter Cash, going through his parents’ effects involved opening up a sizable storage vault containing a plethora of relics from Johnny and June Carter Cash’s life together. He stumbled upon a bunch of eccentric souvenirs in 2012, like camel saddles brought back from Saudi Arabia and numerous keys that locked anonymous doors in cities scattered across the country. As his parents had a penchant for collecting things — “I won’t say they were hoarders, but they had trouble throwing things away” — the miscellany he tripped over in the vault and the sheer volume of it didn’t surprise him.
What did catch him off guard were the tapes. Of the hundreds of recordings he encountered, the tracks for Out Among the Stars were just sitting there on a shelf, in the same spot they were placed shortly after the sessions that produced them. Out Among the Stars never saw its release, and there, in that dusty vault stocked with memories his legendary parents left behind, John Carter Cash found a lost Johnny Cash record, perhaps one of the most revealing Johnny Cash records ever made.
“He was still working on the road and selling a lot of tickets for his performances, but the record sales and the radio play weren’t there,” says John Carter, referring to this period surrounding his father’s stay at the Betty Ford Clinic, which ended in 1984. “He was at a great point in his life, spiritually and creatively. When I hear these recordings, I hear this side of the man in early 1984, when he was clear, when he was true, the side not many people have heard. I feel like it’s a quite viable part of my father’s life. You can hear his integrity of spirit in these recordings. You can hear the happiness in his voice when he sings with my mother, because they were together again. The strength of their love is evident, how they sound like they’re frolicking kids in ‘Baby Ride Easy.’ You can hear the laughter in their voices. I mean, there’s so much there in these recordings.”
The context surrounding Out Among the Stars is enough to secure its spot in the Cash family canon, according to John Carter. “It wasn’t long after these recordings were done in ’84 that Columbia dropped Johnny Cash. I think it’s just as an important time of his life as any, creatively.”
The omission of these songs from Cash’s catalog is bewildering, but not entirely: Despite the fact that Cash was an established American icon at that point, the early ’80s were a troubling time for him, one marked by a return to rehab for his addiction to amphetamines and the least lucrative turn of his career. Gone were the glory days of “Ring of Fire,” “I Walk The Line,” and the booming sorghum voice that got him there. At nearly 50 years old, Cash was set to lose it all, including the support of his label, and the songs he wrote throughout this period are just as vital to his being as the now-classics that dressed Man in Black.
So, how is an entire album written by one of the most prolific American songwriters during a fruitful period of self-rediscovery — one that features duets with June Carter Cash and Waylon Jennings, as well as Marty Stuart before he became a renowned country guitarist — effectively discarded? John Carter couldn’t tell you. Neither could the label. “Columbia just literally put it on the back shelf,” he says. “I talked to the guys at Sony Legacy, and they all agree it was the worst decision Columbia ever made. Now, in hindsight, we see the strength of Johnny Cash, the artist. There’s a lot more to it now; there’s a bigger picture. Gratefully, that’s what remains. That’s what endures.”
With the help of Sony’s Legacy Recordings, John Carter set about getting to work on Out Among the Stars: He shipped the two-track recordings from Tennessee to the label in New York, which digitally converted them and sent them back. With the integrity and depth previously established by producer Billy Sherrill, John Carter did his best to maintain and further flesh out the choices Sherrill made 30 years prior at the studio in Nashville, including having Stuart come back in to re-record some of his guitar and mandolin parts. “This record stood alone,” John Carter says. “We didn’t want to take away from that. We wanted to bring another dimension to the new material.”
The result, 12 songs that seamlessly shoulder up to the robust, revolutionary ballads and jaunty verses that defined Cash and influenced countless others, is a satisfying, sentimental achievement for John Carter. He was in the studio as a teenager when his father cut “I’m Movin’ On” with Jennings in one take, and he firmly believes that the tapes he found, which formally debuted on March 25, were too special to leave safe and sound with the rest of the recordings in that family vault.
“I’ve had people say, ‘Is this something that’s getting released for the sake of releasing it?'” says John Carter. “No, it’s something we believe in. It’s something that we feel he would’ve wanted released. We asked ourselves, ‘Is this something that JR would’ve wanted if he was sitting in the room? Is this something he would’ve wanted people to hear?’ I think [Out Among the Stars] transcends time. It’s not about where the world is now; it’s good, true music. There’s not that many true classic records that’ve been made. I think this is one of them.”
Out Among the Stars is out now on Legacy Recordings.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 26, 2014