Vindication For “The Man In Black”

Paul Grein

The ultimate indignity for a recording artist may be to have your album shelved by your record company. Your own record company is telling you that your work isn't good enough (or commercial enough) to release. The great Johnny Cash had such a humbling experience in 1984, when Columbia Records, his record label since 1958, shelved an album he recorded with famed country producer Billy Sherrill. Cash died in 2003, but this week he won some vindication: That album, titled "Out Among The Stars," entered Billboard's Top Country Albums chart at #1, dislodging an album by current hot-shot Eric Church. The album entered The Billboard 200, an all-genre chart, at #3, just behind the "Frozen" soundtrack and Shakira's "Shakira."

Cash has had posthumous successes before. The last two albums in his career-rejuvenating "American Recordings" series with producer Rick Rubin were released after he died. But Rubin had nothing to do with "Out Among The Stars." This is Cash's first studio album that Rubin didn't produce since 1991.

Cash and Sherrill began the sessions in Nashville in 1981. The album was intended to be the follow-up to "The Baron," a Sherrill-produced album that was released that June. But the label wasn't happy, so Cash worked with other producers (Jack Clement, Brian Ahern) on albums that were released (to modest success).

Cash and Sherrill resumed work on the sessions in Los Angeles in 1984, but Columbia decided to shelve the album. Before long, Cash left the label: He released his final studio album for Columbia in 1985.

Cash's son, John Carter Cash, 44, discovered the shelved recordings in 2012. John Carter Cash is only son of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, who died in May 2003—four months before her husband. The son compiled the album and supervised additional recording sessions in 2013.

The album features contributions from June Carter Cash (vocals on two songs), Waylon Jennings (vocals on a remake of Hank Snow's 1950 classic "I'm Movin' On"), Marty Stuart (guitar and fiddle in both the original and 2013 sessions) and such other noted musicians as Pete Drake, Jerry Kennedy and Hargus "Pig" Robbins.

The album has received mostly positive reviews. Allmusic's Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote: "(The title track) nicely updates the signature Cash train-track rhythm, a cover of the Dave Edmunds/Carlene Carter duet 'Baby Ride Easy' rolls along with spirit, Cash yucks it up with Waylon Jennings on a cover of the Hank Snow standard 'I'm Movin' On,' and 'I Drove Her Out of My Mind' conjures some of the old outlaw magic. Every one of these seem like they could have some kind of potential on the charts, so the fact they were shelved is a bit of a mystery because, when taken together—despite misguided novelties like 'If I Told You Who It Was'—it adds up to one of Cash's stronger '80s albums."

Why has the album gotten off to such a fast start? One factor is the notion that these are "lost" sessions, that were buried in a vault for years. That creates a mystique and makes people curious to hear them. There's always an aura to something that was banned or withheld.

Another reason is that Cash's death (and the success of the 2005 bio-pic "Walk The Line") has boosted his stature. Cash had been a legendary artist since the late 1960s, but that didn't translate to big sales for many years. But since he died, he has been a hot seller.

This is Cash's fourth posthumous album to reach the top 10. It follows "The Legend Of Johnny Cash" (#5 in 2005), "American V: A Hundred Highways" (#1 in 2006) and "American VI: Ain’t No Grave" (#3 in 2010).

The country legend has amassed twice as many top 10 albums since he died in September 2003 than he did while he was alive. During Cash’s lifetime, he made the top 10 with just two albums: "Johnny Cash At San Quentin" (#1 in 1969) and "Hello, I’m Johnny Cash" (#8 in 1970).

Here's another, inevitable irony. This album was released on Columbia's Legacy label, so the label that shelved the album in 1984 is now reaping the benefits of its success.

After this album was shelved, two of the songs on the album wound up being hits for other artists. David Allan Coe reached #11 on Hot Country Songs in 1985 with "She Used To Love Me A Lot." Merle Haggard reached #21 in1986 with "Out Among The Stars."

Billy Sherrill, now 77, is a two-time Grammy winner for Best Country Song. He won for co-writing David Houston's 1966 hit "Almost Persuaded" and Charlie Rich's 1974 hit "A Very Special Love Song." He was nominated as Best Producer of the Year in 1974, the first year the award was given. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010.

"Out Among The Stars" is Cash's 10th #1 country album; his first since "American V: A Hundred Highways." Here's some trivia for you: Cash's compilation "Ring Of Fire (The Best Of Johnny Cash)" was #1 the week the chart was introduced in January 1964, so Cash's span of #1 country albums extends from the very first chart to the very latest. You can't beat that.