Johnny Cash Revisits From "Out Among the Stars"

Johnny Cash-Out Among the Stars-Legacy Recordings-5 STARS

Johnny Cash Cover
Courtesy Legacy

Johnny Cash is the greatest figure of American music. The big-voiced boy from Arkansas who struggled with women, liquor, and drugs, the man in black who fell hard but got up and sang harder, Cash was more than a singer, more even than an iconic singer—he was an archetype. “Live from Folsom Prison” is probably the single best concert album ever recorded; numbers like “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Ring of Fire” broke out of the categories of country, Americana, and gospel to become anthems the whole nation knew. His sense of rough justice, his concern for the little man, and his obsessive search for redemption made him not just an American singer, but The American Singer.

Cash died of complications from diabetes in 2003. As a result, it is an unusual privilege to hear an unreleased album, entirely new to the public’s ears. “Out Among the Stars,” recorded in the ’80s and forgotten until the master tapes’ rediscovery by Cash’s son in 2012, gives tracks that can rival the master’s best work. The ’80s were one of the nadirs of country music as slick pop sounds infiltrated Nashville and corrupted the raw, rough-edged sound at the heart of the genre—in other words, a situation not too far off from today’s. Columbia, Cash’s label at the time, wanted this sort of music, oily and easy to sell. When Cash refused to compromise his sound, they put away his recordings indefinitely. Happily, these are now where they belong, in easy reach of listeners.


The album begins in typical Johnny Cash fashion with the country standard “Out Among the Stars,” written by Adam Mitchell and covered by the likes of Merle Haggard. Yet while Haggard’s rendition moans and whines under the greasy production one would expect on a Judy Collins song, Cash’s arrangement opts for traditional country—a thumping double-bass and jangling piano welcome the listener to the album. “It’s midnight at a liquor store in Texas,” Cash booms out seconds later, assuring the audience that he is back and in fine form. His delivery is typical—in contrast to Haggard’s pathetic, almost comical performance, he has a wryness that conveys sympathetically but unsentimentally the facts and human strangeness behind the holdup that the song describes.

This emphasis on musicality over production is perhaps the dominant theme of this album. The single released for it is “She Used to Love Me a Lot,” originally recorded by David Allen Coe in 1984. This track shows Johnny Cash at his darkest, recalling more than anything his final song, “Hurt.” Cash’s famously deep voice conveys regret, brooding, and even despair as he laments, “I saw her through the window today / She was sittin’ in the Silver Spoon Café / I started to keep going, but something made me stop; / She used to love me a lot.” The Elvis Costello remix that was released as the the b-side for the single is perhaps the only error in the handling of the album’s release: Costello’s strange swooshing additions do nothing but emphasize the grandeur of Cash’s vocals and the original arrangement.

Poetically enough for what will probably be the last original Johnny Cash album ever released, the final song is an original spiritual, “I Came to Believe.” The fact that his firm, unironic Christian faith is the last word on his recording career, more than a decade after his death, is as he would want it.

In a time when pop-stars in chaps like Brad Paisley and Taylor Swift are the standard-bearers for country music and the traditional sounds of the genre are consigned to fringe Americana groups like Old Crow Medicine Show, “Out Among the Stars” will stand as a challenge to the plastic face of the new Nashville. Hopefully a change will come. Whatever the case, this album is a fitting cap on the Johnny Cash discography. “Out Among the Stars” is indeed out there.

—Staff writer Jude D. Russo can be reached at