review: Marla Cantrell
On February 26, 1932, Johnny Cash was born in Kingsland, Arkansas. As time went by he worked in the cotton fields, he listened as the trains rumbled by, he sat at his mother’s feet as she sang folk songs. Every bit of this ended up in his music, every hard knock and bad choice and sweet hymn he’d sung as a child fueled the music that was so distinct it set him apart from every other country music star.
When he died in 2003, the music industry couldn’t praise him enough. What this poor boy from Arkansas had accomplished was quite clearly miraculous. Cash’s rough-around-the-edges baritone voice, his straightforward delivery, his persona that was both accessible and dangerous, created a flood of fans.
But even Cash had valleys in his long career, particularly in the 1980s when a new era of country music (think John Travolta’s Urban Cowboy) was turning the masses toward a newer brand of country. As the decade began, something else was happening: Cash was dealing with his addiction to pain medication, and spent time at the Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Springs to break his dependence.
Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, says that by the end of 1983, his father had conquered the demons that plagued him. Those years were critical to the singer: victory over addiction, and a waning following in the U.S. just as his fame in Europe grew. He would cross the ocean, performing for droves of fans hungry for his music.
After Cash died, his son discovered several never-released recordings from 1981 and 1984. He listened and a flood of memories came back. What he heard in those songs was the heartbeat of his own childhood, the music that filled his home when his dad sang, often with his mother, June Carter Cash.
This year, those songs became the album, Out Among the Stars. There are thirteen tracks, the crown jewel being “She Used to Love Me A Lot,” a bluegrass duet with June. The song, about misconceptions, rotten timing, and lost love, is perfect for Cash, whose voice reverberates with stoic regret. Waylon Jennings shows up on “I’m Moving On,” written by Hank Snow in 1950, and it’s as close to perfect as country music gets.
“I Drove Her Out of My Mind,” a song about a jilted lover with murder on his mind, is country in its classic form. A guy buys a Cadillac on time, lures his ex-girlfriend into it, and takes her on one last ride, right off a cliff. It might not play as well today, but if you’re listening to this album you’re not looking for today’s style of country music.
If there is a deviation on this album it’s “If I Told You Who It Was,” which is not a bad song, just a silly one. But it does reveal that Cash was having fun, not taking life too seriously.
Cash’s signature move is to sometimes drop out of the music, to stop and simply speak the words of a song. There was a time when I saw this as laziness, or worse, a sign his voice was failing. But that’s just not so. There is so much poetry in Cash, so much yearning and heartbreak, that speaking the truth is sometimes paramount to singing it.