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Johnny Cash & Billy Sherrill: Out Among the Stars
When one thinks of Johnny Cash’s producers, more than a few prominent names come to mind. First, there was Sam Phillips who founded Sun Records and was smart enough to let Cash sing. Also at Sun Records was the witty “Cowboy” Jack Clement, who wrote songs like “Guess Things Happen That Way” and “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” that Cash turned into pop hits. At Columbia Records there was Bob Johnston, who helped Cash make his prison albums and also other regulars like Don Law who helped Cash at the start, and Larry Butler and Charlie Bragg worked as producers on many Cash albums during the 1970s.
The only album collaboration between Johnny Cash and “countrypolitan” producer Billy Sherrill was on Cash’s 1981 album The Baron. The title song was released as a single and made the top ten on the US Country charts, and the album made 24 on the US Billboard Top Country Albums chart. The single had the help of a music video as well as a TV movie to boost its popularity. The most impressive, or at least original sounding, songs from the album are “The Hard Way” which packs a powerful punch and “Hey, Hey Train” which has a great rhythm and stands alongside other great train songs that Cash had recorded.
Aside from the three tracks mentioned above, “Thanks To You” stands out as an entertaining and lighthearted song of revenge via songwriting. “Mobile Bay” has some beautiful violin and guitar licks in it and Cash’s vocals are strong and moving as he sings a typical Johnny Cash theme: sympathy for hobos and bums down on their luck. “The Reverend Mr. Black” is reminiscent of “Daddy Sang Bass,” where Johnny Cash merges new lyrics with a Carter Family classic; Daddy Sang Bass relied heavily on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” while “The Reverend Mr. Black” relies on “Lonesome Valley.” The comedy selection, “Chattanooga City Limit Sign” seems like a nod toward “One Piece at a Time,” but with a very subtle humor that might even me more funny that Cash’s hit song--if you know any truck drivers personally.
“Ceiling, Four Walls and a Floor” is almost autobiographical for Cash, but ultimately the corny lyrics don’t quite convey sympathy for the misguided narrator nor do they drive home the song’s moral. Lastly there is a song written by Billy Sherrill himself, “The Greatest Love Affair,” a patriotic song that sounds powerful musically and vocally, but again the lyrics fall short and seem overdone--it certainly doesn’t come close to touching upon the power of “Ragged Old Flag.”
What we have with The Baron is really a typical Johnny Cash album from the time period: something with some hidden gems but some predictable comedy, gospel and patriotic flavor. Sherrill also produced a number of duets with Johnny Cash, twice with Ray Charles and once with David Allan Coe. Cash and Ray dueted first on Kris Kristofferon’s “Why Me Lord” and both giants deliver a very bluesy and heartfelt recitation that deserves to be put among both artists’ best duets. The second Ray and Cash song, “Crazy Old Soldier,” was recorded in 1984, around the same time as Out Among the Stars, and was released on Ray Charles’ album Friendship. Sadly, “Why Me Lord” is the more vibrant song and it was not released until 2010. If nothing else, anyone following Johnny Cash’s career closely knows that the best songs are not always released right away.
The most infamous song that Cash and Sherrill worked together on was “Chicken In Black,” a song Cash truly had hoped would be a hit but a song he did not expect to go far and was retrospectively ashamed to have recorded. It is largely believed that the release of “Chicken in Black” as a single was the final push that Columbia Recorded needed to drop Cash from their label. Rather write about the song, I encourage any readers to watch the music video. The B-side to “Chicken in Black” was “The Battle of Nashville,” a song written by Cash that describes his frustration and pain with Music City, a place he had helped build that now had no care for him or his music. The final song that Cash worked with Sherrill on was the David Allan Coe duet, “Ten Commandments of Love,” in 1986. “Commandments” is a slow love ballad, and Cash mainly sings backup vocals. It also appears to be the last track that Johnny Cash would record for Columbia Records.
What can we expect from Out Among the Stars? Most of the material was recorded in 1984 around the same time, and even during the same sessions, as “Chicken in Black” and “The Battle of Nashville.” Cash had a lot to prove while making this album and even if he felt his relationship with Columbia was jaded, he was certainly not a quitter. First, let’s look at “She Used to Love Me A Lot.” The first teaser released upon the albums announcement, the song was recorded by Cash on June 14, 1984. Comparing Cash’s version with David Allan Coe’s version reveals that each song is very similar--and more than likely Coe, who was working with Sherrill, simply copied Cash’s version when he released the song in December of 1984. With no disrespect to Coe, it is very difficult not to imagine that Cash would have had as much success with the song or more if Columbia had not withheld the album.
Beyond “She Used to Love Me A Lot,” the songs seem to go in many directions. Cash would later record both “I’m Movin’ On” and “I Came to Believe” with Rick Rubin, and he and June did perform “Baby Ride Easy” during a 1984 Christmas Special. All of the other songs have never been released in any form by Cash. In addition to writing “I Came to Believe,” Cash also wrote the never-before-heard song “Call Your Mother.” Other songs are written by artists familiar to Cash like Gene Autry and Hank Snow. Two songs, “Tennessee” and “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time” are actually outtakes from The Baron and were recorded in 1981. This will lead us to our last subject of interest.
What will be the bonus track? Here is the list of songs still unreleased and unaccounted for from Cash’s tenure with Sherrill. If some version of the song as been released, it will be listed here. My hope is it will be the Cash original “You Gave Me Music,” but only time will tell!
- Blessing in Disguise
- Billy Brown (a demo of his song has been released with the House of Cash book)
- New Cut Road (a different version of this was released on the album “Johnny 99”)
- Why Am I Thinking of You
- I Know You Love Me
- You Gave Me Music (written by Cash)
- My Elusive Dreams
- I Still Miss Someone (written by Cash; this version has been rumored to be a duet with Willie Nelson.)