Lost Cash album is great for nostalgia, but it’s no classic

Published 5:05 pm Saturday, April 12, 2014

The “latest” Johnny Cash album is sure to be a bright spot for faithful fans, but it will prove a bit disappointing to others.

The lost album “Out Among the Stars” was released recently and debuted atop the country charts. John Carter Cash, Cash’s son with June Carter Cash, found the album in his parents’ archives. It had been recorded in 1980s, but shelved when Cash shifted his focus to 1981’s “The Baron” and when he was later dropped by Columbia due to poor sales.

On an extended edition of the album available on Spotify, John Carter raves about finding the record in his parents’ archives after their deaths.

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“What a blessing to find this music,” he says on an introductory track.

Frankly, my first impression wasn’t as positive. I really didn’t like this album at first, but it grew on me in subsequent listens.

Let’s first accept a simple truth: No classic, five-out-of-five star album is getting shelved for 30 years. Also, the 1980s weren’t a kind decade for mainstays like Cash, Bob Dylan and others.

However, these songs showcase Cash’s storytelling ability. He sings about a boy holding up a liquor store on “Out Among the Stars.” On “Drive Her Out of My Mind,” Cash humorously sings about driving off of Tennessee’s Lookout Mountain with his lost love to drive her off his mind.

The humor toes the edge of pure goofiness on “If I Told You Who It Was,” a song about hooking up with a famous, though unnamed, country star.

The most surprising — and my favorite — track is “She Used To Love Me a Lot,” which takes on a haunting vibe with an almost ska-like bass line.

Many tracks play a bit like love songs for Tennessee, often referencing the state Cash lived in for several decades.

John Carter said his dad had just beaten a relapse into drug addiction and was at a positive place spiritually when working on this album.

“It’s a memory to me of who my dad was at the time,” John Carter says on one commentary track.

Like John Carter, fans are starved for “new” material from legends like Cash, but the songs play better when backed with the power of nostalgia. Much of the album feels like a hazy memory or something incomplete, and some of the songs sound a bit domesticated.

In the grand scheme of things, this album probably won’t measure up to the core of albums bookending Cash’s career. Often times, his earliest and latest albums are seen as his classics.

I’ve always been enthralled by the two sides of Johnny Cash. In a famous picture and popular poster, Cash flashes a middle finger at a camera in front of a rebellious look. Then there’s the Johnny Cash who made it into my grandmother’s gospel collection.

I say this not to declare one Cash persona far-and-above superior. For musicians like Cash and Bob Dylan whose careers spanned decades, their music underwent vast changes over time. People are bound to gravitate toward one sound or another.

If you prefer the bad-boy Cash who played in prisons, this isn’t your album. If you like the more gospel-leaning Cash, you’re more likely to love this album.

If you’re looking for a final statement on Cash’s career, his American series — especially “American VI: Ain’t No Grave” — stand as the true masterpieces at the end of his career.

This album will serve as a pleasant way to look back on his storied career.