If by recording up until his death in 2003 Johnny Cash could hardly be said to have gone gentle into that good night, his seemingly inexhaustible posthumous output makes it hard sometimes to believe he ever left.
Now comes Out Among the Stars (Columbia/Legacy). In some ways, it perpetuates the illusion of Cash’s immortality more than the last 11 years’ worth of compilations, live recordings, and all four volumes of the Bootleg Series.
Recorded in 1980 with the producer Billy Sherrill, Out Among the Stars was intended to halt the downward commercial trajectory in which Cash then found himself mired. But Columbia Records rejected it, opting instead to release 10 other somewhat jauntier Sherrill-produced tracks as The Baron, which peaked at 24 on Billboard’s country chart and became one of only three (out of eight) ’80s Cash albums to make any charts at all.
Would Out Among the Stars, had it been released as planned, have outperformed The Baron? Probably not. The excellent Johnny 99—a stripped-down affair that featured two Bruce Springsteen songs and that therefore anticipated the no-frills rock covers Cash would assay in the ’90s—bombed saleswise in 1983. And, with the exception of “She Used to Love Me a Lot” (which David Allan Coe would score with four years later) and the title track (about a doomed armed robber with a heart of gold), Out Among the Stars is not in Johnny 99’s league.
What it is is a little bit of everything that Cash did well, sung with an unflappable composure that’s every bit the equal of the workmanlike performances of Sherrill’s studio musicians and those of the recently dubbed-on Buddy Miller, Jerry Douglas, and Marty Stuart (who also played on the original sessions). Nothing in Cash’s two duets with his wife June Carter Cash, the winking comedy tribute to Minnie Pearl, the Waylon Jennings duet (Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On”), or the gospel number “I Came to Believe” sounds as if Cash suspected his reputation as a still-vital music-maker was at stake.
And just as a heretofore undiscovered mundane letter from a long-dead relative can take on special significance, Cash’s rendition of Charles Cochran and Sandy Mason’s “After All” packs a resonance in 2014 that it couldn’t have 34 years ago. “This memory that I had,” Cash sings, “it’s more good than bad. / You taught me how to sing / and bring you love.” In the four months that Cash outlived June, something very like those sentiments surely must have crossed his mind.
Before her marriage to Johnny Cash, June was best known as a second-generation member of the “first family of country music,” the Carter Family. In Carter Girl (Rounder), the latest album by June’s daughter Carlene Carter, the family’s musical roots get replanted in 21st-century alternative-country soil and sprout fresh blossoms.
Seven of Carter Girl’s dozen songs were written by the family’s paterfamilias, A.P. Carter (eight if you count “Lonesome Valley 2003,” an A.P. classic updated by Carlene and NRBQ’s Al Anderson). Rife with biblical and other gospel-music archetypes, they’ll alert newcomers to the Carter Family canon to the fact that once there was a time when Christianity was cool.
But it’s the lone Carlene original, a rerecorded “Me and the Wildwood Rose,” that sets the tone: “In my Grandma’s house her children would sing, / Guitars a twangin’ and their laughter would ring. / I was little, but I was the biggest kid. / I wanted to do what the grown-ups did.”
With Carter Girl, she finally has. —A.O.