Music News
5:20 am
Sun March 23, 2014

Lost Album Gives Voice To A Johnny Cash In Recovery

Originally published on Tue March 25, 2014 10:24 am

On the porch of a log cabin outside Nashville lies the junk of country music royalty — an old bowling ball here, a Hotpoint stove from the 1940s there. Part retreat, part recording studio, this is where Johnny Cash spent some of his golden years.

John Carter Cash, the only child of Johnny and June Carter, says his parents were major packrats. After they both died in 2003, the job fell to him to sift through the family vault across town. Among the things he discovered was a lost album, recorded in the early '80s by hotshot producer Billy Sherrill.

"It's like finding an old Van Gogh in your closet," John says. "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, which came at a low point in Johnny Cash's popularity: "Pretty good songs, pretty good performances — but no magic," Stuart says.

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 Stuart and other musicians out to the cabin studio to give it another go.

"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 her previous marriage — even sang a third part on a 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. They were very much in love. Right before this, they were very close to splitting up," he says.

When Johnny Cash recorded these songs, he'd just come out of rehab; he wrote the last track, "Came to Believe," while there. But even the songs on darker subjects have a lightheartedness about them. One, "I Drove Her Out of My Mind," describes a suicide by driving off Tennessee's Lookout Mountain.

"Its comedic," John 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.

"He was a man of a lot of laughter," he says. "Why not let the light endure? Yes, this cool image whatever brings people in, and it's part of who he was. 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."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There is a new Johnny Cash album out, more than a decade after his death. Like many performers of his generation, he recorded far more than fans ever heard. His son, John Carter Cash, discovered the music that had been shelved by Cash's record company, and he's added his own kind of polish. As Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports, the album shows a lighter shade of the man in black.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWBELL RINGING)

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: A cowbell rings from the rafters of a log cabin outside Nashville. Part retreat, part recording studio, this was where Johnny Cash spent some of his golden years. And the porch is still full of heirlooms from country music royalty.

JOHN CARTER CASH: Oh, there's a bowling ball over there. There's a Hotpoint stove from the '40s. We've got some deer antlers.

FARMER: It's mostly junk. John Carter Cash, the only child of Johnny and June Carter, 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) It's midnight at a liquor store in Texas. Closing time, another day is done. When a boy walks in the door and points his pistol, he can't find a job, but, Lord, he's found a gun.

CASH: It was like finding an old Van Gogh in your closet. What do you do?

FARMER: A lost masterpiece makes for a pretty good story. But that's not how guitarist Marty Stuart recalls the recording sessions, which came at a low point in Johnny Cash's popularity.

MARTY STUART: There were pretty good songs, pretty good performances, but no magic.

FARMER: 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 Marty Stuart to the cabin studio to give it another go.

STUART: When I listened to myself I found there was profound room for improvement.

(LAUGHTER)

STUART: That boy needed some work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FARMER: 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 her previous marriage, even sang a third part on a duet called "Baby Ride Easy."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

CARLENE CARTER AND JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) Aye-ee, my baby ride easy, ride high in the saddle all day. If your loving is good...

CASH: (Singing) And your cooking ain't greasy...

CASH: (Singing) ...we'll chuck the chuck wagon and we'll ride away.

FARMER: 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.

CASH: They were focused and together. They were very much in love. Right before this, they gone through a period where, I mean, they were very close to splitting up.

FARMER: When Johnny Cash recorded these songs, he'd just come out of rehab. He wrote the last track while there. It's a hymn.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASH: (Singing) I couldn't manage the problems I brought on myself, and it just made it worse when I laid them on somebody else. So, I finally surrendered it all, brought down in despair. I cried out for help and I felt a warm comforter there.

FARMER: 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.

CASH: It's comedic. I mean, 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASH: (Singing) They'll say Johnny Cash was quite a smash down here in Chattanooga last night when he drove her out of his mind. Yeah, that Cadillac dealer is in for a big surprise too. Ninety-nine dollars down, $99 a month. Yeah, it's going to be just gorgeous.

FARMER: 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.

CASH: You know, he was a man of a lot of laughter. He was a man of a lot of laughter. You know, and why not let the light endure? Yes, yes, I mean, this cool image whatever brings people in, and it's part of who he was. And I still haven't figured out everything out about my dad. Maybe I probably never will. And that darkness, that's truth. But that's not the full picture.

FARMER: 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.

CASH: This is actually one of his shirts. You know what too? It still smells like him just a little bit. Just a little bit.

(LAUGHTER)

FARMER: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FARMER: For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASH: (Singing) I was down in Music City about a week ago. I wanted to see the Grand Ole Opry show. So, I hailed a cab and I headed down to Opryland. They said they sold their last ticket the day before, so I kinda just hung around the backstage door, and down the steps she came, man oh man.

MARTIN: Our theme music was written by BJ Leiderman. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.