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Not Bad for 80s Cash... Certainly Not His Best
on March 25, 2014
Johnny Cash, as great a music figure as he was, was an artist who lived and died by his producers. As I've written before, he had four great periods, all associated with a particular producer, and all of which faded as those relationships frayed:
1. His classic early Memphis recordings (1955-1956) were the fruit of his relationship with Sam Phillips. As Sam pursued new talent, Cash was left in the hands of engineer Cowboy Jack Clement. As Cash's resentment grew, the quality of his output faded.
2. Moving to Columbia's Nashville studios in late 1958, he worked with Don Law (and his protégé Frank Jones) until Law's forced retirement in 1967. When Cash's artistic vision was clear (Bitter Tears, Ring of Fire) he made the best country music ever. When drugs and pressure got the best of Cash, though, Law's traditional country flourishes made for some embarrassing output.
3. Fresh off producing Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Johnston turned Cash's career around with the rough-and-tumble At Folsom Prison, and then laid the groundwork for the folkier, story-based approach Cash would pursue throughout the 70's with Hello I'm Johnny Cash. Johnny could be petty, though, and an unknown upset resulted in a split between the two in 1971
4. After 20 years of artistic meandering, Rick Rubin finally recaptured the magic with the string of American Recordings collaborations.
So what happened from 1972-1992? For the most part, a whole lot of nothing, and that's where the story of Out Among the Stars begins. By 1984, Cash was down to the occasional hit, and a string of declining record sales, despite the relatively high quality 1983 release, Johnny 99. If you look at what worked for Cash throughout his career, though, it was his place as a country outsider. His career was born in Memphis and died in LA; whenever he went close to Nashville, it suffered.
As Columbia tried time and again to reboot Cash's record sales, though, their recurring strategy was to refashion Cash in the current Nashville trend. In 1984, Billy Sherrill's slick countrypolitan sound was hot, and Cash's old school sound was not. Johnny was also approaching another personal low as his drug abuse resurfaced. Cash and Sherrill had a modest success with their #10 hit The Baron in 1980, which even resulted in a TV movie. The accompanying album, though, was rushed into production for release in 1981, and was a mixed bag. Less than a year after the firing of stalwart bassist Marshall Grant, Cash was fully and completely divorced from his boom-chicka-boom sound.
In 1984, Johnny entered the studios with Sherrill once more, hoping to take the collaboration one step further. An advance single was released, which Cash at the time claimed was one of the greatest songs he had ever made. He was obviously high. The Chicken in Black was a novelty song about a chicken given Johnny Cash's brain. What was meant to be biting satire about his relationship with his label, became a tragic embarrassment and Cash soon disowned the song. Not surprisingly, then, the rest of the album was shelved...
Out Among the Stars gives us 10 unreleased tracks from the 1984 sessions, plus two more leftovers from the 1981 Baron sessions, and a contemporary remix by Elvis Costello. In all, it's not a bad album as far as Cash's 80s fare goes. Most of the tunes are upbeat, fun country tunes: Baby Ride Easy is a fun truckin' love song with June and some hot dobro. If I Told You Who It Was is a novelty song about a scandalous country chanteuse. I Drove Her Out of My Mind is a murder ballad played for laughs, and Rock and Roll Shoes is a lightweight dance tune that harkens back to 50s rockabilly. The highlight of the upbeat tunes, though, is Cash's duet with Waylon Jennings on Hank Snow's classic I'm Movin' On.
While enjoyable, all of the tunes are forgettable, so one would hope the ballads would make their mark. Despite some moments, though, nothing here really sticks. Opener Out Among the Stars is a compassionate tale about the endless ripples of a liquor store robbery gone wrong. There was no need to remake this Merle Haggard tune, and Johnny did a far better job in similar territory with the previous year's Highway Patrolman (penned by Springsteen). She Used to Love Me a Lot is a melancholy tale of lost love. It's fine, but isn't quite the classic this album's promotion makes it out to be. After All - penned by Ed "Mama Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" Bruce - is probably the low point, mired as it is in cheesy 80s keyboards. Things get better with Call Your Mother, a Cash-penned break-up tune about losing your ex-lover's family... with his own marriage on thin ice at the time, perhaps he was worried about losing touch with the beloved Carter family.
Thankfully, the back pages of this album offer some truly solid material, although two of these tracks are from the '81 sessions. Tennessee is a tribute to country life. Although its pedal steel and fiddle are miles from the Cash sound, it features one of the catchiest choruses Cash ever sang. Bakersfield legend Tommy Collins' Don't You Think It's Come our Time provides an opportunity for Johnny and June to create a timeless bluegrass duet. Then, following these gems, comes the real treasure - a Cash hymn that is as personal as he ever got:
"I couldn't manage the problems I laid on myself/ And it just made it worse when I laid them on somebody else/ So I finally surrendered it all brought down in despair/ I cried out for help and I felt a warm comforter there."
Although the version he would record with Rick Rubin for American V takes a more effective, austere approach, here we finally hear the song in its original context. Months short of checking into the Betty Ford Clinic, his career tanking, and his relationships (once again) faltering, Cash looks to the roots of his faith for help.
The problem with this album, though, is Sherrill takes so long to get down to the heart of Cash. Where his greatest performances are multifaceted and nuanced, here they are flat and one-dimensional. The novelty tunes have no edge, and the ballads are too smooth to convey Cash's great humanity. It's no wonder, then, that Cash would start hiding away his best songs until he found a friend in Rubin who could truly do them justice.
I'm glad Out Among the Stars has been released, but it's a bit of a bastard child. The promotions make this out to be a great lost album, but it's not. The slick Sherrill-isms have been toned down a bit, with some contemporary chicken pickin', dobro and fiddle added (particularly on the first three tracks), but it is what it is... aborted sessions from 1984, with a couple of leftovers from 1981. That said, it's far better than the following year's atrocious Rainbow, which would end his solo career with Columbia.
The lesson, here, though, is clear: throwing Cash to the wolves of Nashville was, is, and always will be a bad idea. Long live Cash the country outsider!
Other songs from the era:
Chicken in Black/the Battle of Nashville - this was the single released in 1984. The a-side has not worn well, but the b-side is actually fantastic and eerily telling: "I'm losing ground with you daily/ and it's just a matter of time... here's my swan song for music city..." If only he'd wisened up sooner! Available on Singles Plus.
Crazy Old Soldier - having first recorded Johnny with Ray Charles in 1981, Sherrill got them back together again in 1984. This weepy ballad works quite well. Available on The Legend and Singles Plus.
She Used to Love Me a Lot (Elvis Costello Mix) - Elvis modernizes the track for 2014, offering a moody. It's interesting, but nowhere near as gripping as Rubin's work. A bonus track on Out Among the Stars.
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