“It’s midnight at a liquor store in Texas.”
So opens a fascinating new posthumous record by The Man in Black. Out Among The Stars is a fully realized but previously unreleased album that captures Johnny Cash shortly after his stint at the Betty Ford clinic in 1983 and before the launch of The Highwaymen with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. The pain of relapse combined with the frustration of music-industry negligence made the early ’80s a rough time for Cash. These songs were tracked but never finished and released. They ended up in Johnny’s famous vault, collecting dust. Now, some 30 years later, they get the fit and finish they deserve and Cash fans are treated to a fascinating peek into the heart, mind and soul of a man rediscovering himself.
I think one of the things about Johnny Cash that has inspired me so profoundly is that he wove all aspects of his humanity into his art. Few mainstream artists could be as unapologetically devoted to Jesus as Cash and maintain such a passionate following among unbelievers. Fewer still could pull off the kind of haunting, vulnerable and frequently humorous two-steps with the Grim Reaper that Cash danced so gracefully. Unlike Elvis and many other artists of his generation, Johnny didn’t do “gospel” records and “regular” records intermittently. He parked his testimonial songs right next to fables about gunslingers, fast women, bank robbers and apostles.
Out Among The Stars is a perfect example of Cash’s glorious contradictions. The title track tells of a hopeless traveler cut down after a robbery. “Baby Ride Easy” skips like a runaway train as it chronicles the ecstasy of a new love. “I’m Moving On,” a casual and loose duet with Waylon Jennings, captures all the swagger of the great trucker songs of the late ’70s. “Tennessee” boldly celebrates Cash’s love of country and “Rock and Roll Shoes” channels his rockabilly roots. “I Drove Her Out Of My Head,” is a hilariously dark tale of a scorned lover pulling off a murder suicide in a financed Cadillac. “I’ll take her on a scenic cruise right off of Lookout Mountain, ‘cause she said I never took her out when she was mine. She’ll see all seven states as we drive to the Pearly Gates, tonight when I drive her out of my mind.” Bluegrass mandolin and cheesy background vocals add to the dementedness of this brilliant little barnstormer.
While the light-hearted songs will no doubt get the most attention, the heart of this set is clearly “I Came To Believe,” a traditional waltz that plainly testifies about how God helped him overcome his addiction. Cash revisited this song shortly before his passing, the recording of which was released on American V: A Hundred Highways, three years after his death. While that version carries with it the weight of frailty and mortality, this original recording is full of life, hope, romance and optimism.
Cash’s voice is perfect through all 12 of these tracks. The original production by Billy Sherrill might sound a bit dated compared to Rick Rubin’s beautifully stark renderings, but repeated listens reveal top-drawer musicianship and finesse. Out Among The Stars was recorded during a difficult time for Cash professionally, psychologically and spiritually. To my ears, however, it reveals a holistic and completely genuine faith that would prove to be strong enough to support this amazing and flawed man through the rest of his life. These are beautiful, funny, heartfelt songs from the valley - a veritable time capsule from one of the most important American artists of all time.