Rick Rubin has a lot to do with Johnny Cash’s Out Among the Stars — and he didn’t even produce it.
Though the super-producer and country legend have been linked over the past two decades when it comes to the latter’s creative output, Rubin’s work with Cash technically ended at the singer’s 2003 death, with two posthumous albums trailing in its wake. And yet, it’s tough to picture Out Among the Stars, the Man in Black’s most recent release, without the man with the long gray beard. Without Rubin, Cash may have never found his second wind. Without his second wind, a flurry of acclaimed releases and a biopic, 2005’s Walk the Line, may never have found achieved the fame that they did, or even happened at all. Which brings us to Out Among the Stars, a 20-year-old shelved album that’s finally seeing the light of day this week.
Rick Rubin took Johnny Cash, then a washed-up former superstar who’d been recently dropped by both Columbia and Mercury, and returned him to within a sniff of his former glory. Rubin’s American Recordings released six Cash albums over 16 years, starting with 1994’s aptly named American Recordings. The records were mostly stripped-down and rife with cover songs, from the Leonard Cohen classic “Bird on a Wire” to the much-praised “Hurt,” originally made famous as a completely different sort of song by Nine Inch Nails. Though Cash was never known for being upbeat, his late-career releases have an especially somber quality to them. Listening to each album back to back, one can hear the man slowly slip away from life.
Out Among the Stars is, generally, not that kind of record. Cash was looking to reverse a downward trend through the late 1970s that saw him go from #1 albums on the country charts to barely cracking the top 30. In those days, Columbia Records was very close to giving up completely on Cash. So he brought in George Jones/Tammy Wynette associate Billy Sherrill and turned out 1981’s The Baron, which, again, failed to perform commercially. Songs from those sessions formed the basis of Out Among the Stars, but Columbia shelved the release; the tracks were considered lost until John Carter Cash, the singer’s only child with second wife June Carter Cash, rediscovered them in 2012.
The album finds Cash at a crossroads, past the gritty country glory of hits that sealed his reputation (“Ring of Fire,” “Folsom Prison Blues”) but not yet onto acoustic-till-I-die covers of “I Won’t Back Down” and “One.” By then just beginning his 50s, Cash was out of the limelight yet still an important figure in his genre. But there’s no sense of urgency for a hit, instead offering tried-and-true country storytelling, some of which was penned by Cash himself.
Sure, it feels dated; Cash’s baritone is clearly much stronger than it was one and even two decades later, and its instrumentation recalls early country and rockabilly. But as a snapshot of the singer’s life at that point in time and of the early ’80s in the genre, it’s just as dependable as a standalone recollection of Cash’s career as it is a history lesson.
There’s lead single “She Used to Love Me a Lot,” a tender ballad originally recorded by David Allan Coe, along with the delightful throwback “I’m Movin’ On” (a duet with Waylon Jennings), which seems like it would have fit snugly on the Walk the Line soundtrack had it not been recorded years after its timeframe. Meanwhile, “If I Told You Who It Was” is a formidable slice of Cash’s wry humor that features a superb surprise guest and the actual line “her tire, unlike her body, was very flat.” “I Drove Her Out of My Mind” is a gleefully wicked tale of finishing off a relationship once and for all. Even June Carter herself pops up on two tracks.
Out Among the Stars isn’t a massively important entry in Cash’s canon, but it deserves its place in his discography. It all comes back to Rubin, who was still a teenager when Stars was first recorded. But it’s because of the Rubin-Cash partnership of the ’90s and ’00s that this release was propelled into meaning much at all. Had the American Recordings releases and the biopic never primed a younger audience for the Man in Black, who would bat an eye at a Cash album that was shelved during one of the lower points in his career? One could have seen the release heading for footnote status or at best, a bonus disc for a Cash rarities comp, rather than an album with an actual sales campaign from its label and an official music video that’s garnered half a million views.
So thanks, Rick Rubin. We owe you one.