In the entertainment industry, your brand endures after you die. Tupac Shakur released seven record albums after his death and appeared via hologram at Coachella in 2012. Michael Jackson earned $160 million in 2013 despite being dead since 2009. And now Johnny Cash has released Out Among the Stars. The recording falls into the category of “lost” album — which is often a lofty code word for bad material that has been collecting dust in a vault for a good reason. And Out Among the Stars is a flawed effort. But for Cash fans, the album is a useful artifact, like discovering a diary of a famous historical figure, and the songs show different dimensions Cash and the music brand we know as the Man in Black.
The material on the album is culled from a difficult period on Johnny Cash’s life, 1981 to 1984. The Nashville establishment ignored him, Columbia Records dropped him from the label, and he relapsed into an addiction to pills. But as Out Among the Stars demonstrates, he didn’t stop recording. The material, resulting from a collaboration with producer Billy Sherrill, offers a glimpse at different sides of the Man in Black brand and Cash the musician: the romantic (there are two duets with his long-time love, the great June Carter Cash), the spiritual seeker (“I Came to Believe”), and the dark humorist (“I Drove Her Out of My Mind,” which focuses on murder and suicide with a off-kilter humor that evokes classics such as “Delia”).
Out Among the Stars will appeal to Cash fans who want to appreciate how his style was evolving as he slowly emerged from a low point in his life although I would not recommend it as a starting point for newcomers to explore his music and discover the Man in Black. The album was recorded long after his great run of concept albums had ended and 10 years before his collaboration with Rick Rubin on American Recordings produced one of the greatest comebacks in music history. You can hear flashes of the brilliance that was to come with Rubin, especially in songs like “I Came to Believe” (which, in fact, Cash would later record with Rubin on American V: A Hundred Highways). Unfortunately, much of the material is hampered by ham-handed production that characterized country music during a time when legacy artists and producers struggled for contemporary relevance. If anything, Out Among the Stars will help you appreciate the genius of Cash and Rubin stripping away the instruments and focusing on the power of his voice years later.
But hearing June Carter Cash duet with Johnny evokes one of the enduring romances in music, the cameo from Minnie Pearl on “If I Told You Who It Was” is funny, and the wicked laugh at “I Drove Her Out of My Mind” is classic Cash. If you want to learn more about Cash, first listen to classics like Orange Blossom Special, Sings the Ballads of the True West, At Folsom Prison, and the American Recording sessions. Get Out Among the Stars (if you buy albums at all anymore) to better understand how an artist battled through hard times.