Johnny Cash – Out Among the Stars (2014)

You’d probably assume that 1981’s The Baron, produced by countrypolitan pioneer Billy Sherrill, would do little to suggest where Johnny Cash would end up a little over a decade later with the American Recordings series. Cash was, it seems, utterly content with his life and his wife, and Sherrill’s soft-edged pop sound didn’t exactly give it much edge.

Out Among the Stars, featuring 12 never-before-released songs dating back to that period with Sherrill, both confirms and rebukes the notion. It’s not going to change your mind about the missteps of that era for country music (which had already begun its depressing trudge toward crossover blandness), much less for Cash. And yet, there are glimpses of the successes to come with maverick producer Rick Rubin.

And so we have Cash offering an impishly humorous breakup song “I Drove Her Out of My Mind,” and the fulfilled happiness of “Tennessee.” Hard moral themes creep out, despite the sometimes too-comfy setting, when Cash sings about a desperate young man holding up a liquor store in the title track and when he ruminates on a dimmed passion in “She Used to Love Me a Lot.” (A young sideman named Marty Stuart also adds some stinging, mystery-filled asides on “Rock and Roll Shoes.”) But, more often on Out Among the Stars (due March 25, 2014 from Columbia-Legacy), we find Cash simply unable to free himself from Sherrill’s gauzy, too clip-cloppity production, something that dooms the likes of “After All” and “If I Told You Who It Was.”

Cash shows there’s still fire in his belly while tangling once more with Waylon Jennings on the locomotive, chest-rattlingly deep-voiced “I’m Moving On,” only to be quickly guided toward more placid waters by Sherrill.

Couple that with Cash’s collaborations alongside June Carter Cash on “Baby Ride Easy” and “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time” — the first conveyed with a knowing sense of age-old love, the second a trip back to the first kindlings of a lifetime’s pairing — and you have something approximating the polar opposite of Cash’s stark 1990s-era confessions, a musical representation of the utter equanimity he shared with June, even when they didn’t share a mic.

Her loss, a crushing blow, would send Cash on a furious search for redemption through the Rubin sessions that would probably seem all too familiar to the singer of “I Came to Believe” — a rare moment on Out Among the Stars of brutal, jaw-dropping honesty. There, Cash makes a portent-filled accounting of dead-end choices, finally setting the stage for everything that would follow in the decade ahead.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.