For all of its faults, this album speaks to the variety of Cash's immense body of work in a way that the much-celebrated Rick Rubin recordings simply do not.
Be forewarned: you should check your expectations for this album right from the start. Judged purely on its own merits, Out Among the Stars is a decidedly average Johnny Cash effort, perhaps even a touch worse than that. Like much of his work in the 1980s, it is hobbled by poor production, mediocre material, and a general lack of purpose. Nonetheless, all those criticisms aside, this remains an important record.
Out Among the Stars, recorded in the early 1980s but shelved by Columbia in 1984, was produced by Billy Sherrill. Sherrill is best known for his work in the 1960s and 1970s with the likes of George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Charlie Rich, only a few of his most obvious charges. Listeners familiar with those much-vaunted recordings (“He Stopped Loving Her Today”, “Stand By Your Man”, “Behind Closed Doors”, etc.) may expect Sherrill to immerse Cash in symphonic arrangements here. But this isn’t lush in the manner of those more famous records. Instead, Sherrill lays comparatively low. He surrounds “She Used to Love Me a Lot” with fragile, minor-key acoustics and flourishes of atmospheric electric guitar, lifting the otherwise slight composition.
That’s not to say Sherrill entirely abandons his more grandiose approach, and it is much to the album’s detriment when he employs his trademark studio techniques. A baffling, saccharine children’s chorus sabotages the otherwise excellent, wistful remembrance of “Tennessee”. Still, were the material stronger, some occasional production flubs wouldn’t sink it. On the whole, however, these songs are merely adequate. And even a sure-shot such as “I’m Movin’ On” is stymied by pedestrian vocal turns by both Cash and his duet partner, Waylon Jennings. Granted, these failings don’t make for a bad album, but neither do they make for a good one.
So why is Out Among the Stars important? For the better part of the past twenty years, and particularly in the decade-plus since his death, Cash has been reconstructed as an austere American prophet of suffering and judgment. This vision of the man owes in no small part to to the monochromatic legacy of the Rubin recordings, which loom large in our contemporary understanding of Cash. For years now, the Rubin recordings have been wrongly aligned with the justly fabled Sun recordings. The latter are remarkable for the breadth of feeling they convey within a very specific, perhaps even limited, sonic framework. By contrast, the impact of the Rubin recordings is blunted by an aural narrowness that reduces nearly everything to doom and gloom. The result is a stilted portrait of the artist that favors this thematic simplicity at the expense of the complexity that naturally accompanies a career that spanned half a century.
For all of its faults, Out Among the Stars doesn’t play to this conception of Cash. Instead, it speaks to the variety of the body of work, which encompassed rockabilly, gospel, country, blues, folk, pop -- you name it. And any record that can set us on the path toward a more complete and more truthful appreciation of Cash and his work is something to be treasured.