Mention Johnny Cash and most people either think of the young Sun Records singer whose early singles like “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire” changed the sound of country music, or they’ll remember him as he was near the end of his life, as a reinvented hipster who sang bare-bones versions of songs made popular by Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails.
Until now, it’s been difficult to reconcile the polarities. The trainwrecks of Cash’s early career as chronicled in his first autobiography, The Man in Black, and mythologized in the 2005 biopic Walk The Line have had such an influential role in forming the public’s perception of the artist that people could be forgiven for thinking that nothing much happened in between his marriage to June Carter in 1968 and his “comeback” albums with Rick Rubin in the 1990s. Of course, the truth is far more complex than that, as the recently discovered recording Out Among The Stars from the early ‘80s proves.
The latter-day Johnny Cash evolved into a compelling icon. In Rubin’s version, Cash was the craggy veteran of thousands of concerts, one-night stands and bad truck-stop meals. He was a man who had been to hell and back and had lived to tell the tale. Like Slim in Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men, he was one who understood far more than he let on, a man whose depth of gaze and piercing stare communicated far more than his music ever could. He struggled under the burden of dark secrets that few could understand. Cash’s last years allowed for the creation of a version of himself that people revere, but like so much of the information we get from the media offers us, it is at best a fragmented and incomplete picture of a very complicated individual. Some, like his old friend and collaborator Bob Dylan, felt that the Rubin records were a travesty and did a disservice to his legacy, saying listeners should “reject all that notorious low-grade stuff he did in his later years. It can’t hold a candlelight to the frightening depth of the man that you hear on his early records. That’s the only way he should be remembered.”
It’s easy to see where Dylan is coming from. In some sense, the Rubin records were manipulative and designed to accentuate Johnny Cash’s outlaw status at the expense of a more complex understanding of the man’s whole musical scope. Rubin’s records were Johnny Cash for novices, dark songs for people who had never smelled cow shit or felt saddle sore. But, for those of us not blessed with Dylan’s wide understanding of roots music or without the ability to breathe, unfiltered, the air of old weird America, Rubin’s records offered a wonderful shorthand. And it must be remembered that after years of recording albums that were often frankly unlistenable, at the very least Rick Rubin must be given credit for rekindling Cash’s belief in himself and his passion for making music again.
The debate about Johnny Cash’s latter-day recordings and whether they’re on par with his early singles could go on forever. The Sun records are the energetic and unabashed recordings of a young man and are absolutely perfect as they are. They need no explanation, while the Rubin records are more self-conscious and referential rather than spontaneous. Still, there is, to my ears, something real and essential about them.
But, what about Johnny Cash’s career between the late ‘60s and the ‘90s when Rubin’s American Recordings series was recorded? When was the last time anyone listened to any of Cash’s albums from the mid-’70s to the late ‘80s? It was a period when Cash had reinvented himself as a family performer and an upholder of traditional American Christian values. During those years he appeared on The Waltons and Billy Graham’s televised evangelical crusades, recorded embarrassing albums featuring himself in a chicken suit and starred in Canadian television commercials advertising “Johnny Cash ATM machines.”
It was undeniably a low period, but the recent discovery of the masters for Out Among The Stars, a complete album recorded between 1981 and 1984, serves both to complicate the picture and fill in some fairly serious gaps in Cash’s creative life. While the results are neither as energetic and original as the peak Sun Records or Columbia recordings, nor as darkly compelling as the Rubin albums, they’re still a lot better than anyone might have expected. The first thing that anyone listening will notice is that the musical performances on Out Among The Stars are much livelier than anything Cash had recorded in the years prior to it. The arrangements are loose and spacious, giving the musicians—including a young Marty Stuart on guitar and Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano—a chance to play their hearts out. Whether it’s the easy swagger of “I Drove Her Out of My Mind” or the country flirtations of “I Told You Who It Was,” Cash sings with conviction on every single song. Old fans will enjoy hearing Johnny and Waylon Jennings duet on an uplifting version of Hank Williams’ “I’m Movin’ On” before changing partners to sing with his wife, June Carter Cash, on “Baby Ride Easy” (which recaps the melody from “Git Along Little Dogies”) and “Don’t You Think It’s Our Time.” Out Among The Stars also includes two Cash originals, “Call Your Mother” and “I Came To Believe.” While the first of these is nothing special, “I Came To Believe” is one of Cash’s great songs of faith. Dark, brooding and self-deprecatory as it chronicles his journey through addiction and weakness, it is a song only Johnny Cash could write and may well be the reason you should purchase this album.
Apparently, there may be a few more recently discovered albums of Johnny Cash recordings in the vaults, and each of these when they’re released will undeniably add to our understanding of his life and music. Though these probably won’t be as good as finding “new” tapes of lost Sun singles or a mid-’60s album completed and forgotten about in a drug-addled haze, if they’re anywhere as interesting as the recordings that make up Out Among The Stars, Johnny Cash fans will have a lot to look forward to.