When John Carter Cash happened upon an album of unheard songs by his father, he knew it had to be released. He tells ANDY WELCH about keeping the Johnny Cash legacy alive
Posthumous releases are nothing new.
Latest in this long line comes Out Among The Stars by Johnny Cash.
It’s not his first posthumous album - that was 2003’s Unearthed, released two months after he died - and it won’t be the last. It is, however, different from the others in that it wasn’t recorded in the few years before his death, but over various sessions in 1981 and 1984, and seemingly stockpiled for a rainy day.
It’s almost exactly as Cash had been planning to release it, if his record label Columbia hadn’t scrapped the whole idea.
“This is new,” says his son, John Carter Cash. “This album is a cohesive body of work to me, not bits we’ve put together - it sounds whole. And it’s from a period in Johnny Cash’s life that not many people know about.”
Under the modern narrative of Cash’s career, you could be forgiven for not even believing that the self-styled Man In Black was even making records in the Eighties.
There has been a great deal of revisionism since Cash teamed up with producer Rick Rubin in 1993 to start what would become the seven-strong American Recordings series of albums.
Legend has it that Cash, struggling to get any industry attention, walked into The Viper Room one night - the Los Angeles club then owned by Johnny Depp - got up on stage and sang, stopping half of Hollywood’s movers and shakers in their tracks, and his career was reborn.
There is an element of truth to that, but Cash rarely stopped making records. Even when his popularity was at its lowest, he could still pack out 4,000-seat venues, and there’s seldom more than a two-year gap between albums.
The thing that curtailed Cash’s career in the early Eighties, and explains the three-year gap in recording sessions for Out Among The Stars, was a relapse into drug addiction.
Cash had an enclosure of exotic animals at the House Of Cash, the theme-park-cum-recording studio he’d had built. After a number of the ostriches died, he tried to bring one of them - Waldo - indoors, out of the cold. But the bird attacked him, ripping open his stomach and breaking five ribs.
He’d been sober for years, his addiction battles of the Sixties well behind him, but became hooked on super-strength painkillers after being hospitalised.
By the time of the second bout of recording for Out Among The Stars, he was sober again.
“He was in a prime, if not the prime,” says Carter Cash. “Vocally, he sounded fantastic. He was physically and spiritually focused. And that’s why this is an undiscovered treasure.
“It makes a statement, which all great Johnny Cash records do,” he continues. “Through the diversity of his music, there is always a strong statement; of his great enduring love for God, for my mom, or a look at the darkness in his spirit. There’s also humour which he’s perhaps not as known for, but it’s there.”
But if the album’s so good, why did Columbia choose not to release it when it was originally finished? For the answer, one only has to look at what was happening in country music at the time.
The Countrypolitan sound, a glossy production style originating in Nashville, had swept away what many fans believe was the sound of authenticity in favour of something more mainstream, and therefore more popular. Producers didn’t really know what to do with Cash.
Carter Cash, the only child Johnny and June Carter Cash had together, was born in 1970. He vividly remembers being at some of the recording sessions for the album, particularly on the day ‘Uncle’ Waylon Jennings came along unannounced. Him dropping by resulted in one of the new album’s most dazzling moments, a duet between the two country giants on Hank Snow’s I’m Movin’ On.
But Carter Cash had largely forgotten about the recordings, until a few years ago when he was going through a vault and found the tapes.
“It’s a very personal thing for me,” he says of becoming reacquainted with the recordings. “I can hear how deeply in love my dad was with my mother. He was also my best friend, so by coming back into contact with this album I have come back into contact with my best friend.”
Much of what he does is preserving his father’s spirit, he says.
“My father did things in life in a certain moral way. He stayed true to what he believed in, and there are things we’re offered that don’t suit that moral standing.
“For example, my dad would never allow his name or likeness to be used for tobacco or alcohol. He smoked and he drank, like a freight train at times, so it’s not a matter of disapproving of those things but trying to stop others making the same mistakes.
“There are more recordings in the vaults, and they will likely be released too, but the timing has to be right. I think of it like finding a missing Van Gogh. What would you do? Keep it in the attic, or present it to the world so everyone else can enjoy it too?”
Out Among The Stars by Johnny Cash is out now.