No one's ever had a reason to call Johnny Cash an underachiever. He put out nearly 100 original albums over the course of his 40-plus-year career even the two released after his 2003 death debuted in the top five, a testament to his eternal outlaw appeal.
But just as they were for Bob Dylan, the '80s were a fallow decade for Cash, plagued by label problems and DOA singles. And The Baron, made with Tammy Wynette's mentor Billy Sherrill in 1981, was such a commercial disappointment that Cash's label decided not to release the pair's second batch of sessions, despite the contributions of collaborators including Waylon Jennings and June Carter Cash.
Those sessions were discovered by Cash's son, John, in 2012, and now with a little bit of tweaking are appearing as Out Among the Stars. It'd be easy to romanticize the album's 12 tracks at last, the songs the Man didn't want the Man in Black to release! but the suits might have been right the first time. It's mostly Sherrill's fault; the slide-heavy arrangements and hokey production flourishes would have sounded remarkably cornpone even 30 years ago. Cash's storytelling is mostly on point, and while he's strongest spinning tales of heartbreak (as he does on the teary two-step ''Call Your Mother''), the goofballery of ''If I Told You Who It Was'' feels unbecoming of an artist of his stature. Only the gallows humor of ''I Drove Her Out of My Mind,'' in which Cash unspools a madman's fantasy about buying a Cadillac just so he can drive himself and his ex off a cliff, captures his murderous charm a totality he wouldn't fully inhabit until his Rick Rubin-assisted redemption in the '90s. Ultimately, Stars is useful only to illuminate exactly why such a rescue mission was necessary. C
''I Drove Her Out of My Mind''
''Call Your Mother''