May 15, 2019
Johnny Cash’s ‘Out Among The Stars’ Is A Record For Cash Fans, Not Rick Rubin Fans
“Well, 1955, I broke into a Johnny Cash show. Johnny Cash and that other boy, Elvis.” My grandpa pauses, thinking this is enough information. “Wait, where was this?” I ask. “Oh, across the river from Johnny Cash. Bono, Arkansas.” Until now, I’d never heard him talk about where he was born. I only ever knew it as being Johnny Cash-adjacent. “About 300 people lived there at that time. Nothing to do, so I went to see the show. And I didn’t have no money! If I did, I wouldn’t waste it on no singer!”
I press for more details, hoping my grandpa has any hidden insight into the mythos of Johnny Cash, of Heaven and Hell and Dexedrine. “How did you break in?” “It was at a gymnasium. I went around to the bathroom and kicked the window in.” “Was the show any good?” “Well… Elvis was horrible. Rocky rolly fool, flip-flopping around like a fish. I wouldn’t even break in to see him. But Cash was good. Cash was serious. Have all his records.”
I love that about my grandpa. He has no use for mythmaking. Take Elvis and Tupelo. Nick Cave has spent most of his career turning Elvis and his hometown into a fire and brimstone abstraction. But right before my grandpa hung up, he told me “I like Elvis’ records – he’s from Tupelo and I bought some dogs there.” Here’s a guy who’s been listening to Johnny Cash for 60 years, not because of the “I wear black for the poor and beaten down” routine, but because Johnny Cash was a really good singer from Arkansas who put on a good show and made a bunch of good albums.
In death, that reality has been all but erased from Johnny Cash’s legacy. Thanks largely to Rick Rubin, Johnny Cash isn’t a person: he’s an archetype. He’s rebellion, he’s punk rock, he’s true love, he’s good vs. evil. And now you can’t click on a YouTube video of the guy without seeing a wall of commenters who think he was 8 feet tall and the first Christian in outer space.
Note as well that on record, thanks to a very deliberate release schedule, Johnny Cash has been a dying man for a solid 20 years. He’s been dying so long that he’s now another archetype: The Dying Singer. From now on, every singer who ever dies will have their final work compared to Johnny Cash.
So Out Among The Stars,his latest posthumous album and the first that Rick Rubin had nothing to do with whatsoever, arrives with the unfortunate baggage of myth. The tapes were discovered. The single predicts the Rubin comeback. Columbia was insane to drop somebody who was about to have a Rubin comeback. A few people who play on the album are dead, which, hey, you know what, reminds us of the Rubin comeback.
And that’s unfair to the legacy of Johnny Cash, the really good singer from Arkansas. Because this is a nice little album. Recorded in 1981 and 1984 with Billy Sherrill, this is Cash in fine form, being his honest self, performing a solid batch of covers and a couple originals. He’s sober, and his singing voice is strong and confident. He’s funny like he always was, a bit cornball, a sucker for lame novelty songs, and superhuman on whatever songs require gravitas.
It’s a fun listen (any country album of sufficient vintage that opens with the lyric “it’s midnight at a liquor store in Texas” can’t be a complete failure). Billy Sherrill’s production works well, despite the narrative of Johnny Cash the wayward ex-singer who was about to off himself in a highway-side motel outside Branson and needed Rick Rubin in West Hollywood to take the gun away. And Marty Stuart’s 2013 instrumental overdubs are helpful, giving the album a contemporary Americana edge that hides some traces of 1984 – the new dobro and electric parts are particularly appreciated.
“She Used to Love Me a Lot” is a highlight, a definitive take on a slight song and willed into greatness with a sinister conviction that the lyrics don’t really deserve. Never mind John Hillcoat’s wildly inappropriate video suggesting the song, where a woman used to love a man a lot but no longer does, is somehow about the decline of the American economy.
“Baby Ride Easy” is another highlight, a rollicking number with June Carter that ranks as one of their better duets and serves as a breath of fresh air after Rubin’s “Johnny Cash = lone survivor of the apocalypse” PR trickery. And the title track is solid, fitting nicely into my favorite niche: upbeat songs with triumphant choruses that are actually about how we’re all gonna die. (I prefer Merle’s broken down version, but then again I would.)
The album is obviously going to disappoint anyone who wants it to fit into the usual death and resurrection narrative, and the “I hate country but I love Johnny Cash” contingent will have no use for it whatsoever, but it’s a pleasant surprise for people who know that he recorded “Chicken in Black” and briefly thought it had chart potential. Ignore John Carter’s overly enthusiastic promotion, and it’s a breezy good time, better than anyone would expect from Johnny Cash in 1984. I defer to my grandpa, who adores Billy Sherrill and refuses to learn Rick Rubin’s name: “The singing’s good, Marty Stuart’s a good picker, there’s a Hank Snow song – not bad.”