by Derek Pyle
Lately, there’s been a lot of really good Johnny Cash on my Sirius/XM satellite radio, but it took me a few weeks to figure out why: the Man in Black has released a new album. It is a record endowed with a few duds, but some fantastic takes as well.
Like many posthumous releases, Out Among the Stars compiles various hitherto “forgotten” songs, which where recorded in the early 1980s with producer Billy Sherrill. But this is not merely a collection of unwanted B-sides. While featuring overdubbed instrumental parts, the album’s production is spacious and certainly showcases Cash. Chronologically the album stands between Cash’s earlier country success and his later, final music, which was marked by darker themes and grim-sounding vocals. (The most famous cut from this later period is Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt.”) It is a time of searching for Johnny Cash, as the man was grappling with addiction and recovery, and marooned in between periods of public acclaim. Trigger, a reviewer from Saving Country Music, described “the song material on this album [as] somewhat indicative of [Cash] searching for direction. It is sort of the take of two Johnnys—one introspective, dark, and even disturbed at times, and the other the more ‘aw-shucks’ Arkansas boy.”
Now I like the recklessness of outlaw country, but too much “ah-shucks” in a song about robbery and murder turns me off. When Johnny Cash is able to combine casual recklessness with real emotional grit–an ability he continued to develop until the end of his life–the effect is as powerful as the plight of Meursault in The Stranger by Albert Camus. We see this emerging in the album’s eponymous opening track, a great story-song originally written by Adam Mitchell in the late 1970s, and later recorded by Merle Haggard in 1986. The song takes place at midnight in a Texas liquor store, and tells of a boy who “walks in the door and points a pistol/ he can’t find a job, but lord he’s found the gun.” The boy commits this robbery fully aware that the police will come for him, and “even though he knows they’ll come with guns a-blazing/ already he can feel a great relief.” A tragic figure, the boy finds relief in demise, a predicament for which we are given an explanation that somehow seems both explanatory and cryptic:
Oh how many travelers get weary/ bury both their burdens and their scars./ Don’t you think they’d love to start all over,/ and fly like eagles out among the stars?
This is the poetic beauty of a reckless lifestyle. Alternatively, the “aw-shucks” outlaw aspect of “I Drove Her Out of My Mind” is unsettling. The song almost makes heartbroke vengeance sound like fun, but the theme of domestic abuse is disconcerting. As a listener, I meet the song with a strange confluence of emotions. While I wouldn’t cheer for a song like this, I think the fact that it transmits a confusion between sadistic pleasure and the pain caused by this, makes the song a worthy piece of aesthetic creation (rather than simply being a exploitative, and in that way dishonest, celebration of violence).
The album also contains fun rockers devoid of any outlaw trappings, as in “Baby Ride Easy,” an uptempo duet between Johnny Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash. Featuring overdubbed mandolin chops by Sam Bush, it is a love song that just feels fun: “if your lovin’ is good, and you’re cookin’ ain’t greazy/ we’ll chuck the chuck wagon and we’ll ride away.” The tune fits well with “If I Told You Who It Was,” a whimisical story about a one night stand with an anonymous but clearly hot country star–“you wouldn’t believe it, if I told you who it was!” And as a prime example of “aw-shucks”–and while I don’t care much for the rest of the song–the chorus of “Tennessee” is quite infectious.
“I’m Moving On” is worth a listen if only for the anecdote told by Johnny Cash at the song’s beginning, about Hank Snow (the godfather of country music; Snow was also a big influence on Elvis, among many others). The song itself is another catchy rocker, a duet with the ultimate outlaw, Waylon Jennings. Another real treat on the record is the album’s original single, “She Used to Love Me a Lot.” First popularized by David Allan Coe, the song tells a familiar story of hoping to regain an old lover’s affection, only to discover that her heart has grown cold. It is a lovely and lonely tune. Sung like unspoken words out of your own mouth, it’s the kind of thing that makes you love Mr. Johnny Cash.