Cash's estate is releasing "Out Among the Stars," an album he recorded with Billy Sherrill in the early 1980s that was never released by Columbia Records, then disappeared when the company dropped Cash in 1986. Turns out Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, stashed the tapes - along with just about everything else that came into their possession.
"They never threw anything away," said their son, John Carter Cash. "They kept everything in their lives. They had an archive that had everything in it from the original audio tapes from 'The Johnny Cash Show' to random things like a camel saddle, a gift from the prince of Saudi Arabia."
They stored away so much, in fact, the younger Cash and archivists at Legacy Recordings didn't find the material until last year, long after the family began issuing archival music by Cash. "Out Among the Stars" will be out March 25, and continues an intense period of interest in the singer, who helped shape modern country and rock 'n' roll music and became an American pop cultural figure before his death 10 years ago at age 71.
Multiple music, book and restoration projects have been started in the past 18 months to mark what would have been the singer's 80th birthday and the 10th anniversary of his death. The music being released was recorded during a difficult period for Cash personally and professionally.
Columbia paired him with Sherrill, a producer and Country Music Hall of Fame member who was then the president of CBS Records Nashville. One of the main architects of country music's so-called countrypolitan sound, Sherrill helped push the genre toward pop sounds and conventions - and away from Cash's more independent-minded ways.
The pairing came at a time when Cash was at a low ebb in his popularity. The music on "Out Among the Stars" is taken from 1981 and '84 sessions, at a time when country music was going through great change.
"Dad was always uniquely himself," Cash said. "And later on the world would come back around. He never modified himself. But Nashville at the time was in a completely different place. It was the 'Urban Cowboy' phase. It was pop country, and dad was not that. I think him working with Billy was sort of an effort by the record company to put him more in the circle of Music Row and see what could happen at the heart of that machine."
It was clear record company executives didn't think much of the outcome. They put out a few more Cash albums after the recordings were made, but never used the music from those sessions before dropping him. Sherrill backed Cash with a band that consisted of fellow Country Hall of Fame member Hargus "Pig" Robbins and a young friend of Cash's named Marty Stuart.
The younger Cash and his co-producer, archivist Steve Berkowitz, decided they'd bring Stuart back in to re-record his parts with 30 years more experience as a picker. Others, including Buddy Miller and Jerry Douglas, helped fortify the original tapes as well. The 12 tracks include a duet with Waylon Jennings and two with June Carter Cash.
"We were so excited when we discovered this," Cash said. "We were like, my goodness this is a beautiful record that nobody has ever heard. Johnny Cash is in the very prime of his voice for his lifetime. He's pitch perfect. It's seldom where there's more than one vocal take. They're a live take and they're perfect."
John Carter Cash doesn't think Columbia executives realized what they had in hand. Even though his father had been a major star, tastes would soon turn to Garth Brooks and Shania Twain.
Biographer Robert Hilburn, who recently released "Johnny Cash: The Life," said the music fans are about to hear was recorded during some of the most difficult years of Cash's life. He felt like he'd lost his legacy and he was still dealing with the fallout from personal problems including infidelity and drug addiction.
He soon met producer Rick Rubin, though, and wrote a coda to his career that gave his life something of a mythic quality.
"Johnny Cash was redeemed, and that was a wonderful lesson," Hilburn said. "His story is so great and it's so dramatic and it's so much more dramatic than I ever envisioned."