Johnny Cash, Trend Chaser

He was a musical genius and icon of authenticity, yes. But, as his new posthumous album shows, he was also a slick, shameless pop star.

Johnny Cash's latest album, Out Among the Stars, can be seen as a money grab on several levels. Recorded in 1984, the songs were originally intended to update Cash's sound by pairing him with then-hot coutrypolitan producer Billy Sherrill, best known for his string-heavy, high-gloss work with George Jones and Tammy Wynette. The recordings were shelved because of lack of interest by Columbia Records … but ever since Cash's 1990s commercial renaissance, there's been a demand for product, which, due to his death in 2003, the man himself can't fulfill. So Cash's son, John Carter Cash, pulled these tracks out of the vault, fleshed them out with contributions from stalwarts like Buddy Miller, Jerry Douglas, and Marty Stuart, slapped a black-and-white American Recordings-style cover on it, and waited for the press coverage and album sales.

This kind of popularity-minded chasing of the zeitgeist is, despite what some fans might think, hardly a betrayal of Cash's spirit. The singer today is often seen as an icon of authenticity, but in truth he was always eager to pick up a gimmick (the Mexican horns on "Ring of Fire"; the novelty lyrics of "A Boy Named Sue,") or run after the latest shiny new trend.

He started out in the 1950s at Sun records, hanging out with rock-and-roll radio hitmakers like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. In the 1960s, Cash retooled himself for the folk revival, recording a number of Dylan songs ("It Ain't Me Babe," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right"), appearing on the Dylan album Nashville Skyline, and even recording a protest album focusing on the treatment of Native Americans in collaboration with Peter La Farge. In the 1970s, Cash jumped aboard the Outlaw Country movement, recording duets with old friend Waylon Jennings and (in 1985) releasing a whole album with Waylon, Willie, and Kris Kristofferson as the supergroup The Highwaymen. In the 1980s, he was right there with the neotraditionlists, appearing on Emmylou Harris's classic Roses in the Snow and working with producer Brian Ahern. In 1993, he sang the song "The Wanderer" on U2's Zooropa.

In this context, his move to American Recordings and Rick Rubin seems less like a return to his true stripped down folks roots, and more like just another new marketing endeavor. Similarly, covering Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" fits with his long history of reaching across genres and expectations for new, eye-and-ear-catching material. That's what you do if you're a pop star.

"Pop star" is often seen as an insult—a synonym for shallowness or disposability. Real musicians are supposed to stay true to themselves or to their music rather than chasing that latest new sound. That's especially the case in country, where roots and traditionalism are a thematic obsession and where many view Taylor Swift's pleasantly unadventurous singer-songwriter pop as a dastardly betrayal. Yet, I doubt anyone thinks it would have been better for Cash to have spent his career making decade after decade of boom-chicka-boom Sun singles, great as those were. Hopping on the next neat musical movement can be seen as venal, or it can be seen as adventurous. Are you selling out or staying hungry? Are you pop or are you real? What's the difference?

Maybe the difference is in the results. On Out Among the Stars, unfortunately, the results underwhelm. For Johnny Cash fans, it's not a terrible record, but there’s not much in particular to distinguish it. Johnny and June duets are just about my favorite music in the world, and having two of them here—especially the lovely "Don't You Think It's Come Our Time"—is worth the purchase price alone as far as I'm concerned. But that’s basically all there is to recommend. Waylon Jennings doesn't sound particularly engaged in his duet on Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On." The cheerful murder ballad "I Drove Her Out of My Mind" never catches fire in the way of earlier cheerful murder ballads like "Cocaine Blues." "Rock and Roll Shoes" isn't nearly as entertainingly loopy as 1978's "I Will Rock and Roll With You" ("A new sun rising on the way we sing / and a world of weirdos waiting in the wings"). Elvis Costello's ominous alterna-production for the remix of "She Used to Love Me a Lot" seems like a deeply superfluous effort to recapture Rick Rubin alterna-production of yore.

If you wanted, you could argue that the problem here is precisely the callow commercialism of the venture: Sherrill's involvement doesn't seem to have engaged Cash on any level, and John Carter Cash should maybe have just let this unessential album lie (except for those June duets). But you could just as easily say that the misstep is not enough gimmickry—Cash falling back on familiar schtick and routine rather than shamelessly setting out for something new.

I'd argue instead, though, that it's not one or the other, but how they fit together. Anybody working in popular music has to negotiate a relationship with the market, which means both figuring out how to stay relevant and figuring out how to stay true to yourself. Cash managed to do both those things with almost unmatchable skill for half a century. Out Among the Stars is hardly the only misstep in his career, but that just highlights how remarkably often he managed to make that oxymoron which is authentic pop.