Entertainment

03.18.14

The Inside Story of Johnny Cash’s Legendary Lost LP, ‘Out Among the Stars’

Out Among the Stars isn’t a bottom-of-the-barrel hodgepodge assembled by Cash’s heirs to keep the family coffers full—it’s an ‘endeavor of the heart’ by Cash’s son.

Most “new” albums released after a musician’s death aren’t really new at all. Instead they tend to be leftovers—the live tracks, B-sides, and outtakes that the artist didn’t see fit to release in his or her lifetime.

But the new Johnny Cash album, Out Among the Stars, is different. This isn’t a bottom-of-the-barrel hodgepodge assembled by Cash’s heirs to keep the family coffers full. It’s an actual lost LP by the Man in Black—an entire disc that was supposed to come out back in the mid-1980s but was shelved by Cash’s record company before it could be completed.

For decades, these fascinating recordings languished in the Cash Family vault, unheard and unremembered. But now Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, has rescued them from obscurity, polished them up, and put them back together—just as he says his father and mother, June Carter Cash, would have wanted.

To find out more about the process, the music, and how Out Among the Stars got lost in the first place, we gave Cash a ring. He was gracious enough to tell us the behind-the-scenes story of his “endeavor of the heart.”

Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me about the moment that you discovered the recordings that make up Out Among the Stars.  

My parents never threw anything away—tape after tape that they stored for nostalgia. But when they passed away, it became necessary to catalog everything, so what I did was ship all the audio recordings from Nashville to New York City, where they were transferred to digital. Then everything came back to me.

In that process, we discovered all these wondrous recordings. Some of them, we had no idea they existed—like the first Bootleg Series that we put out a few years ago, The Personal File. Just my dad and his guitar, a double record. A beautiful, beautiful recording. Nobody knew that existed—or at least they had forgotten.

“Honestly, my dad was just following his heart. He was having a good time. We can hear it in his laughter, in his pitch and timbre.”

And Out Among the Stars was one of those recordings. 

There’s other material even now—material that we’re trying to consider whether it’s right for release. But this record in particular really shined. It stood out to me as a unique body of work. There were songs that my father had recorded that had never been heard before. This wasn’t, like, B-sides and outtakes. It was a full record. A lost record. So I was really excited.

The sessions for Out Among the Stars started in 1981 and recommenced in 1984. Your dad was working with the legendary countrypolitan producer Billy Sherrill. Set the scene for us: what was going on in Johnny Cash’s career at that point? What did he want to accomplish with this album?  

My dad was working hard on the road. He was traveling a lot. He was writing a novel—a book called Man in White about the conversion of the Apostle Paul. And in the early 1980s—1981, 1982, 1983—he has been suffering from a relapse of his drug addiction. In late ‘83, he went to rehab. When he came out of rehab he felt like he was bright. He was a beginner. He was in love with his life—his family, his home life, was really good. And he was my best friend. So in rediscovering this record it was like I got to be with my best friend again from that time period. It was a real blessing for me. I remember the man who he was then. He was strong and focused in 1984—and that’s when ten of these 12 songs were done.

When you say “forgotten,” had you forgotten about these recordings as well?

Yeah. I did. I mean, when I rediscovered it, the memories came rushing back. In my mind. As I listened, I actually remembered being there at some of these sessions back in the ‘80s. I was there when Waylon Jennings walked in off the street and they spontaneously decided to record the Hank Snow song “I’m Movin’ On.”

Your dad worked with Sherrill on The Baron in 1981 and recorded a few songs for Out Among the Stars around that time. Then they reconnected a few years later and finished off the LP. Why did they get back together? Was it because your dad really liked those earlier sessions and wanted to recapture some of the magic? Or was he going in a different direction musically by 1984?  

This album side by side with The Baron… to me, they don’t sound much alike. It seems like a unique body of work. Honestly, my dad was just following his heart. He was having a good time. We can hear it in his laughter, in his pitch and timbre.

As producer, what did you have to do to make Out Among the Stars ready for release? 

This album was unfinished. There were missing guitar solos. There were missing acoustic guitars here and there. Different stuff—it was obvious enough that it was going to have to be finished. But we had all the right people to do it. Marty Stuart played on the original recordings in the ‘80s. Listening to it, I called Marty and said, “You’re a better guitar player now than you were then. Would you like to come in and replace your guitars?” And Marty said yes.

[Laughs]

So he did. Other guys added some guitars and did some dobro work. But overall, we were trying to stay true to the original production, which seemed corrected for these recordings. We didn’t want to subtract that much. We just wanted to enhance where necessary. It wasn’t broke, so we didn’t need to fix it.

Walk us through the album. What were the moments that most affected you as you were putting this project together?

“Baby Ride Easy”—that was my favorite thing on the record. I love “She Used to Love Me a Lot”; the melody is haunting and beautiful. It reminds me of the later stuff my dad did with Rick Rubin. I love the duet with Waylon, “I’m Movin’ On”—it’s just astonishing in its energy. So fun. “I Came to Believe”—that’s a statement of my father’s faith and how he gave himself over to God. That’s a very personal song—something he wrote himself—and it’s very meaningful to me. I love that it’s there. I really like “If I Told You Who It Was,” too. When I found out who he was talking about at the end of the song, I broke down laughing. I’d never heard that one before.

There’s so much that stands out about this record to me. It’s fun. It’s different. Like all great Johnny Cash records, it’s very diverse. There are a lot of different elements here that make it the reality of who my dad was. He makes songs his own.

Why wasn’t Out Among the Stars released back in the 1980s?

Columbia just didn’t have the vision. They did not know how to promote Johnny Cash. Now talking to the guys at Legacy, they now believe it was one of their worst decisions their predecessors ever made. But you know: people look at numbers on paper and what not, and they decide it’s time to move on to something else. And so they didn’t give a great heritage artist the respect he deserved.

At the time he recorded most of this record in 1984, Columbia Records wasn’t very interested in Johnny Cash. They didn’t know how to market him. They didn’t know how to make it happen. I just look at it like they didn’t have the vision. He was definitely creative. We can hear it on this record. To me this is a classic Johnny Cash record. It’s just something they didn’t know what to do with. And my dad just moved on to the next thing.

When we look back now and see the full picture of who my dad was as an artist—the enduring legacy—this record stands out as a beautiful body of work that was created during a time period in my dad’s life when he wasn’t getting his due respect.

Was it a hard decision to release these recordings? Did you think about whether your father would have wanted them released now? Did you struggle with that?

Yeah. I did really focus on that. You never want to release something just for the sake of releasing something. It’s got to be right. It’s got to say something unique. It’s got to say something in a way it hasn’t been said before.

I do know that he believed in this record. Particularly the song “Baby Ride Easy.” I remember he and my mother performing it live on stage a lot and being excited that this could possibly be a hit for them. But they couldn’t get it released, sadly.

So I had no doubt in my mind, nor in my heart, that my parents would want “Baby Ride Easy” to be released. It was a must. They would have been really excited.

How did it feel when you first sat down and listened to the finished version of the album?

It was an endeavor of the heart. It really was. It was something I believed in. And so holding this album in my hand, looking at it—that’s cathartic. It’s a healing thing.