How a Long-Forgotten Johnny Cash Record Was Lost and Now Found

A lost Johnny Cash album that the late Man in Black recorded in the 1980s will be released next year.

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A lost Johnny Cash album that the late Man in Black recorded in the 1980s will be released early next year. But how does music from so high-profile and beloved a recording artist as Cash fall into a black hole to begin with? And why did it take twenty-something years for the album to land in stores?

The answer concerns a period in Cash's career that's been as widely forgotten (if not outright maligned) as the recordings in question.

First, some brief career history. Cash found himself at a bit of a career low in the early 1980s. His tours still sold well, but his records sunk steadily into irrelevance; the artist was still more than a decade away from teaming up with Rick Rubin and re-imagining contemporary songs (most memorably, Nine Inch Nail's "Hurt") on his masterful American series. It was during this period that Cash recorded "Chicken in Black," a self-parody recorded at a time when, in daughter Rosanne Cash's words, the artist "was kind of mocking and dismantling his own legacy." 

It was also during this period that Columbia Records, having long since given up on Cash's success, set up the artist to record an album with producer and arranger Billy Sherrill.

Cash wasn't the only big sixties name to fall into a lull around the time. Bob Dylan reached an arguable career low on 1985's Empire Burlesque (though fans of miserably dated eighties production would do well to seek it out), while Neil Young sparred with Geffen Records and infuriated the label with a half-jokey rockabilly project.

But the Cash record in question didn't even make it into stores. That album was recorded, then axed after Columbia severed its relationship with the singer in 1986, an outcome Cash seemingly desired. Thus, the story of Out Among the Stars, the "lost album" that will now see the light of day on March 25. 

Why now? As the Associated Press reports, Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, had a penchant for hoarding their old recordings:

"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."

But Cash's estate didn't find those tapes until last year, nearly 30 years after they were stashed away. The timing makes a bit of sense. Last year marked the 80th anniversary of the late singer's birth, and this year marked the tenth of his death (thus rendering a popular Twitter meme factually inaccurate). It was the couple's son, John Carter Cash, who finally found the tapes last year. He found them to be "beautiful," he said in a statement:

"When my parents passed away, it became necessary to go through this material," John Carter Cash said in a statement. "We found these recordings that were produced by Billy Sherrill in the early 1980s … they were beautiful."

But it won't sound much like Cash's 1950s and '60s heyday ("I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire"), nor will it resemble the sparse, haunted recordings Cash made with Rick Rubin in the 1990s and early 2000s. Just as the tapes were lost, the album itself evokes a lost period that fell in between those two career highs.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.