Johnny Cash: Out Among the Stars

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.

Johnny Cash

Out Among the Stars

Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2014-03-25
UK Release Date: 2014-03-31

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.






West London's WheelUP Merges Broken Beat and Hip-Hop on "Stay For Long" (premiere)

West London producer WheelUP reached across the pond to Brint Story to bring some rapid-fire American hip-hop to his broken beat revival on "Stay For Long".


PM Picks Playlist 4: Stellie, The Brooks, Maude La​tour

Today's playlist features the premiere of Stellie's "Colours", some top-class funk from the Brooks, Berne's eco-conscious electropop, clever indie-pop from Maude Latour, Jaguar Jonze rocking the mic, and Meresha's "alien pop".


Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia in East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.


Electrosoul's Flõstate Find "Home Ground" on Stunning Song (premiere)

Flõstate are an electrosoul duo comprised of producer MKSTN and singer-songwriter Avery Florence that create a mesmerizing downtempo number with "Home Ground".


Orchestra Baobab Celebrate 50 Years with Vinyl of '​Specialist in All Styles'

As Orchestra Baobab turn 50, their comeback album Specialist in All Styles gets a vinyl reissue.


Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.


The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.


Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.


For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?


Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Becky Warren Shares "Good Luck" and Discusses Music and Depression

Becky Warren finds slivers of humor while addressing depression for the third time in as many solo concept albums, but now the daring artist is turning the focus on herself in a fight against a frightful foe.


Fleet Foxes Take a Trip to the 'Shore'

On Shore, Fleet Foxes consist mostly of founding member Robin Pecknold. Recording with a band in the age of COVID-19 can be difficult. It was just time to make this record this way.


'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.


Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.


3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.