On Tuesday, Johnny Cash will put out an album of new music more than a decade after his death. His son – John Carter Cash – has polished some forgotten tunes that were sitting around collecting dust. And he says they show the lighter side of the “man in black.”
“He was a man of a lot of laughter. And why not let the light endure? Yes, this cool image – whatever – brings people in, and it’s part of who he was. And I still haven’t figured everything out about my dad. And I probably never will. And that darkness, that’s truth. But that’s not the full picture.”
The only child of Johnny and June, John Carter Cash says his parents were major “packrats.” After they both died in 2003, the job fell to him to sift through family artifacts stored across town. He discovered a lost album, recorded in the early 80s by hotshot producer Billy Sherrill.
“It was like finding an old Van Gogh in your closet,” he tells WPLN. “What do you do?”
A lost masterpiece makes for a pretty good story. But that’s not how guitarist Marty Stuart recalls the recording sessions.
They came at a low-point in Johnny Cash’s popularity.
“Pretty good songs, pretty good performances, but no magic,” says Stuart, who played in the Johnny Cash Band at the time.
Polishing Off The Songs
The big names were starting to sing over orchestras instead of fiddles and six-strings. Cash’s sound had evolved, but not that much. Shortly after making these forgotten recordings, he was famously dropped from Columbia Records.
So John Carter Cash – a producer in his own right – invited musicians like Stuart to the Cash Cabin Studio to give it another go. (See inside the Cash family studio here, including the “Game Room,” as in stuffed game.)
“When I listened to myself, I found there was profound room for improvement,” Stuart says with a laugh. “That boy needed some work.”
For this album titled “Out Among The Stars,” Stuart laid down new guitar solos. Dobro master Jerry Douglas came in to add some background twang.
Carlene Carter – one of June’s daughters from a previous marriage – even sang a third part on a Johnny and June duet called “Baby Ride Easy.”
While known for their duets, Johnny and June were also famous for their rocky relationship. Cash’s career may have been foundering at this point, but John Carter says his parents were happy.
“At this period of their life, they were focused and together,” he says. “They were very much in love. Right before this, they were very close to splitting up.”
When Johnny Cash recorded these songs, he’d just come out of rehab. He wrote the last track while there. It’s a hymn titled “I Came to Believe.”
The album has some of Cash’s signature grit too. But even the songs on darker subjects have a lightheartedness about them. One describes a suicide by driving off Tennessee’s Lookout Mountain.
Reshaping A Legacy
“Its comedic,” John Carter Cash says. “He’s laughing and making jokes about how the car dealer is going to feel after he commits suicide in the vehicle without paying for it.”
No one’s expecting a chart-topper from this previously unreleased music. But John Carter Cash does hope to reshape a bit of his father’s tortured legacy, away from the “Cocaine Blues” and toward the upbeat.
Still, the picture on the album cover is a stern-faced Johnny Cash, in his signature black shirt. The image in most people’s minds apparently remains the image that might sell.
While taking some publicity photos for the release, John Carter Cash was looking a whole lot like his dad in a black button up.
“This is actually one of his shirts,” he said. “You know what too? It still smells like him just a little bit. Just a little bit.”
The scent still hasn’t left. Cash hopes the new music will keep the memory of his dad fresh for fans until he finds more unreleased music worth putting out.