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A Very Good Year
A series covering the 15 best music releases of 2014
10. Neil Young - A Letter Home
9. Bill Mallonee - Winnowing
8. Foo Fighters - Sonic Highways
7. Tom Petty - Hypnotic Eye
6. Bruce Springsteen - High Hopes
5. Willie Nelson - Band of Brothers
4. Marty Stuart - Saturday Night/Sunday Morning
3. Johnny Cash – Out Among the Stars
Key tracks: All of them
Listening to Out Among the Stars reminds me predominantly of one thing: I miss Johnny Cash.
I miss his wisdom. I miss his humor. I miss his authenticity, his music, and especially that voice. Out Among the Stars is a wonderful, though heartbreaking, reminder of everything we're missing without him around.
Why Stars wasn’t released in the early ‘80s, when it was recorded, is a mystery. Cash supposedly thought it was too pop, but the album that he released instead, 1985’s Rainbow, wasn’t rootsy by any means. Although it benefits from some modern production and mixing, Out Among the Stars is a far better album.
The opening title track is one of his most stirring later-era songs. The story of a liquor store hold-up has all the trademarks of a classic, psychologically strong (and twisted) country song. “He can’t find a job, but Lord, he’s found a gun” the narrator sings of the sad, sympathetic hero, who envisions the guns of the police he’s about to face as “a great relief.” His executioners are no better: he knows the “familiar anger in their eyes” and that “when they’re shooting at this loser/they’ll be aiming at the demons in their lives.”
The final twist at the end is equally potent and a final chorus pulls it all together:
The evening news carries all the details
He dies in every living room in town
And in his own a bottle's thrown in anger
And his father cries, he'll never live this down
Oh, how many travelers get weary
Bearing both their burdens and their scars
Don't you think they'd love to start all over
And fly like eagles out among the stars
The album’s single, “She Used to Love Me a Lot,” is nearly as good. Cash’s version has been stripped of the ‘80s qualities that mar David Allan Coe’s hit from 1984. Led by a more convincing vocal, its Man in Black darkness gives the lyrics a deeper level of seriousness. On Coe's you imagine it's a sunny day in the '80s; on this version it's definitely raining.
Out Among the Stars highlights each part of Cash’s immense personality. Pastoral, family oriented, truly country songs like “Tennessee” and “Call Your Mother” are pure Cash. June has never sounded as beautiful as she does on duets “Baby Ride Easy” and especially the lovely “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time.” For country fans it doesn’t get much better than Waylon Jennings helping Cash on Hank Snow’s immortal “I’m Moving On” (which also features a couple hot guitar solos). Seriously, I can’t overstate how cool that is to a country nerd like me. Waylon and Johnny singing Snow! When they harmonize at the end it's incredibly heartwarming. These are two ghosts that deserve to haunt us. Listening to it gives me goosebumps every time.
The narrator is going to the Grand Old Opry to see his favorite female singer who “you know from country magazines.” After the show her tire is flat (“unlike here body”!) and she asks him to change it for him. Eventually they go back to his hotel room where she “performs” for him. The entire time it is assumed that this woman is the prettiest, most voluptuous woman in country: Dolly Parton. The last verse, a very funny punchline if you get it, proves otherwise:
When I put my arms around her and squeezed her real tight
She looked up at me with those big beautiful eyes
Took a deep breath in the side and said:
"Howwwww-dy! I'm just so proud to be here!"
The last line is delivered by the woman who made it famous: country legend (and very old woman at this point) Minnie Pearl. For fans of the old country variety show Hee Haw, of which I am foremost in my generation, this hilarious song is a great revelation.
Cash was proud that each of his albums contained at least one gospel song. Stars ends with one of his best, “I Came to Believe.” Although re-recorded shortly before his death, the gorgeous hymn is given a less spooky treatment here that fits the song better. It’s one of Cash's most simple, affective professions of faith.
Simply, the world needs the Man in Black. His absence still affects me over a decade after his death. The quality of Out Among the Stars, a forgotten album made during his leanest time as an artist, is a fitting testament to his legend.
Next: 2. Pink Floyd - The Endless River
Erik Ritland is a writer and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. His blog and podcast Rambling On features commentary on music, sports, culture, and more. He is also a contributor for Minnesota culture blog Curious North. Support Erik's music via his Patreon account, reach him via email, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.