ARTICLE JOHN CARTER CASH
PHOTOGRAPHY NORMAN SEEF
THE NEW JOHNNY CASH ALBUM, OUT AMONG THE STARS, WAS RECORDED IN THE EARLY '80S AND ONLY RECENTLY DISCOVERED BY HIS SON, JOHN CARTER CASH, IN THE FAMILY ARCHIVES. THE GRAMMY-NOMINATED PRODUCER TALKS ABOUT HAVING THE MAN IN BLACK AS HIS DAD AND THE LESSONS HE LEARNED FROM THE LEGEND
I always say my parents never pushed me to go in a certain direction and they really didn’t. I think if I decided that I wanted to be a fisherman or a ship captain they would have supported me, but in some ways I didn’t have too much of a choice. They brought me on stage from the moment that I could walk and said take a bow. Being surrounded by that when I was young—the spirit of music that was all around, you know, it became who I was. I worked on the road plenty, playing guitar for my father until he retired, in 1997. I had been working in the studio, producing music for a little while, but mostly my own stuff. I did some hard rock bands, engineering, pushing buttons. But my mother asked me if I would help her produce her record Press On. And I think it was then that I finally got in the studio, and sort of got the bug for it, started doing other projects too. I worked with Marty Stuart and I worked with Billy Joe Shaver. I did a record called The Unbroken Circle: The Musical Heritage of the Carter Family, which is a tribute record with multiple artists. I just recently finished recording 93 songs for Loretta Lynn that will be coming out later this year, old Appalachian songs, a full gospel record, a full Christmas record, rerecorded all her hits. But the most important records of my father’s that I worked on were American III through American VI. I worked as associate producer. I hardly missed a session. So all through this time period, working under Rick Rubin (he gave my father carte blanche; he would say, “Keep recording”), I was there with him the whole time, from when he began working on American III until his very last session that he was alive, I was there. I was watching him endure through all these physical hardships. He was ill. He had autonomic neuropathy, he had bouts with pneumonia, he was diabetic. So when I listen to those records, they mean the most to me, because it’s not just about the music, it’s about the life and the lessons he taught and the strength that he had contained within him. That he quadrupled his effort in the face of adversity. That’s what I hear. I hear frailty. I hear sadness. I hear great loss. Especially after my mother died, there is a lot of stuff on American V and American VI that was recorded after she passed away. So that’s what means the most to me, it’s about the life lessons he taught, the example he lived, that he endured. And people ask, “Did he die of a broken heart?” He died with a broken heart, but my father’s persistence would have kept him going if his body hadn’t given out. I believe it. I believe he would still be making music today.
After my parents passed away it became necessary to go through the vault at their offices in Hendersonville, Tennessee, to see what all was there. There was a monstrous camel saddle from Saudi Arabia, there were keys to every city in North America, the original eight-track recording audio tapes for The Johnny Cash Show. Just an amazing amassment of things and within these things were treasures—handwritten documents, love letters from my father to my mother, and music that nobody had ever heard before. So it was within this vault that this record was rediscovered. Of course I think Columbia knew that it existed, but it was recorded during a period of time when, sadly, Columbia wasn’t very excited about Johnny Cash. Dad was at a point in his career where he was sort of searching and Columbia didn’t quite know what to do with it.
This album was recorded from 1981–84. Even though Dad wasn’t as successful selling records at that time, he was in one of his primes. My father had various primes in his life—when he began in the ’50s; the late ’60s, when he did the live at San Quentin and live at Folsom records; and of course at the end of his life, though not in his physical prime, he was still in a creative prime. But at this point in his life, he had a bout with addiction and had just gone through the Betty Ford Center, and he came out and was completely clear. He was in perfect voice when all of these recordings were made. The musicianship is masterful. It stands out as a unique body of work from when he was focused, when he was bright, when he was full of energy. It is just as important of an insight into my dad’s character, who he was as an artist, as the works done at the end of his life. It’s like catching a picture of a man who is seldom seen, you know? AS TOLD TO CHRIS WILSON
OUT AMONG THE STARS IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM COLUMBIA/LEGACY