The posthumous release of Johnny Cash’s 1980s recording “Out Among the Stars” is a pleasant reminder of what made him such an influential classic country artist. The honest lyrics woven into a narrative accompanied by staccato finger picking and a string bass create that definitive Cash sound that we came to expect from him. Yet, true as that sound is to the roots of country, it didn’t fit into the mold as Nashville gradually shifted toward glitz and glamour (think Dolly Parton and the Branson supper club headliners). Cash always prided himself on being an outsider and appealing to an audience that was just as misunderstood. His was the voice of the underdog, the man undeservingly behind bars, or anyone who didn’t quite have a desired place in society. He used his popularity as a musician to bridge the gap between the bandwagon fan group and the people he was singing to — which went against where country music was going in the 80s.
John Carter Cash, the only living son of June and John, came across his father’s tapes in 2012, and it was clear why these songs weren’t previously released — the tracks were unfinished. There weren’t any of the twangy guitar solos we’ve come to love and the musical accompaniment was “sparse … and not intentionally” like in his later albums. In order to complete the album, John Carter Cash rounded up some of the original session musicians, including Marty Stuart, a member of the elder Cash’s band, and other “respected Country and Americana players” Buddy Miller, Bryan Sutton and Jerry Douglas. Also enlisted was June Carter Cash’s daughter Carlene Carter. The eclectic group gives this album a more holistic and upbeat accompaniment, which would have been outside Cash’s “me and my guitar” comfort zone.
While the sound is more rounded out than most traditional Cash albums, tracks like “Call Your Mother,” and “If I Told You Who It Was,” have the coined conversational feel of Cash songs. The lyrics are effortless, as if Cash is coming home and telling you the story of his day — a quirky, unfiltered country tale.
However tracks like “After All” go more along the lines of 70s singer songwriters, with easy ballad tempos, melodic piano and melancholy tones. “Out Among the Stars” lacks the rawness of the tapes from Folsom Prison, but more than makes up for it in the higher sound quality of a 2014 produced album. The Elvis Costello version of the emotionally deep “She Used to Love Me A Lot” offers a synthy, electronic departure from his iconic style, which was perhaps a consequence of the 80s, the era of synth.
Cash’s vocals are the highlight of the album. They have a clarity and smoothness that is uncharacteristic of his normal gritty bellowing voice. Perhaps some of this is due to his absence during the production process, for this album is far more produced and sound edited than any of its predecessors.
It’s still the same old Man in Black, but far more refined than we heard him in his lifetime.
RECOMMENDED: Johnny Cash’s newest release may lack some of the grittiness of his earlier work, but “Out Among the Stars” still manages to preserve his classic sound even after his death.
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