John Carter Cash Lost and Found

John Carter Cash Lost and Found
Photo Courtesy of Jim Marshall Photography
John Carter Cash is an accomplished American record producer, novelist, children's author, and musician. He is the only child of the late, legendary couple June Carter and Johnny Cash, with whom he often worked both in the studio and out on the road, and he recently discovered a treasure trove of unreleased, neglected music featuring his parents. On March 25, Columbia Records' Legacy imprint release one of these finds, a stirring and strong Johnny Cash album recorded by Billy Sherrill over sessions in 1981 and 1984. The record is called Out Among the Stars and Cash spoke to Exclaim! about it recently.

Where in the world are you?
Right now I'm in Nashville Tennessee. This is my home; I've made it my home for my whole life. I'm an old Nashville veteran. It's a beautiful day here.

That's nice to hear. Now, this will mean very little to you but I had the good fortune of seeing you perform with your parents at Massey Hall [in Toronto] in 1996. I was 18 or 19 years old and it meant the world to me.
Wow. That's amazing. I remember that show. I remember the performance and the backstage area. We played hundreds of shows a year sometimes but yeah, no, I definitely remember that evening.

Yeah, it was a great one and something I'll never forget for sure. Can you tell me how you found Out Among the Stars because I think it's a unique story.
Well, my parents were sort of packrats. They never threw anything away and, all through their time together, they stored away various things in a vault. It was a random collection in some ways. I mean, there were the keys to every city in North America, there was a camel saddle from Saudi Arabia. It was an amazing collection of artefacts and random things, but among them were hundreds of audio tapes, two-inch reels, 24-track tapes, and some mixtapes also. And on these tapes were my parents' life and the history they created together. There were the eight-track recordings from the original Johnny Cash Show — just so much there. And it was within these tapes that we found a lot of great treasures, a lot of beautiful recordings — things that my dad did, just him and a guitar back in the '70s, sort of foreshadowing what he would do later with Rick Rubin. Lots of gospel recordings — there's just so that's much there. Dad's dedication and spirit to his artistry was chronicled within these finds. I think Columbia knew of these recordings but they were literally put on the back shelf and forgotten. Suddenly, they're out in the forefront and we're looking at this body of work that dad did with Billy Sherrill and we're like, "This is a beautiful record." This is something that needs to come out, that people need to hear, that dad would've wanted people to hear.

You mention that Columbia put it on the back shelf. I know you have to be diplomatic about this but what does that aspect of this story tell us about Columbia's vision or lack thereof when it came to your dad's music in the 1980s?
Columbia, at that point, wasn't interested in Johnny Cash. They didn't know what to do with dad and established, long-standing artists and they didn't have a vision for him. Nowadays, in retrospect, we all see the big picture. The guys at Sony are like, "Worst decision that we ever made, that our predecessors ever made." I think they're well aware of that now. I mean, there was an urban cowboy phase and they were trying to figure out what to do with an artist like Johnny Cash. But his spirit of creativity was still there, it still endured and was so strong, and it's very evident when we listen to these recordings.

I'm pretty familiar with every era of your dad's work but it always strikes me that his voice rises above the production. Like, whatever era it is, his voice and phrasing is there — it's him and the essence of him is present. How would you compare the '80s lushness versus the sparseness he went on to explore with Rick Rubin in those recordings?
Well, it's all a viable part of his career and where he was. He was searching and trying to figure out what to do and would look for producers that had this certain sound, this Nashville sound. So that's there and we didn't want to take away from that. We wanted to exhibit that and be proud of the music he made. I had the chance to go in and record some new music for these recordings and what a blessing that I did. Marty Stuart played the original guitars on these recordings and I heard it and said, "Marty, your guitar playing now is better. Why don't you come in and play guitar?" And he did, he replaced his guitar and replaced his mandolin also. So, there's some new music that has been put on these recordings but for the most part, we tried to stay true to it because it's a wonderful production. It's powerful and we didn't want to take away from it.

What are the biggest revelations about this record for yourself, as someone who knows your family's material so well but also, if you can be objective, what do you think a fan will most be surprised by?
I think the listener will be intrigued by my father's voice. You can hear the clarity in dad's spirit. He had gone through some struggles in the early '80s with addiction and he went through the Betty Ford Center in late '83 and he came out of Betty Ford and he was totally focused in his life, his spirit, and with his family. And that's the man I'm reminded of when I hear this. So it's all there; you can hear that in these recordings. That's what I believe people will find most exciting is the vibrancy and integrity in dad's spirit.

Yeah, I have to agree with you. I alluded to this earlier; his voice is very strong here and he's clearly having some fun when the song calls for it. Is there anything about the lyrical content in this era or the songs he chose to cover that speaks to his spirit as well?
There's "I Came to Believe," which is such a beautiful song about his faith that he actually wrote while he was in the Betty Ford Center. There's "Baby Ride Easy" that my sister Carlene brought to my parents. You can hear their spirit and my mother and father singing together and I think it's as good as "Jackson." "I'm Moving On," the old Hank Snow song, with my dad doing a duet with Waylon Jennings, is exciting and moving and quick. But there's so much else here; great songs like "She Used to Love Me A Lot," where we hear my dad sounding better than he ever did. There's just so much there, there really is.

I have read in pieces previewing this release that you've suggested there could be even more albums coming. Can you tell us anymore about these albums? You say there's a vault with a lot of stuff in there.
Yeah, there is more music. There's been a lot released already like the Bootleg Series, Personal File. Those were things that we found. The next Bootleg Series may contain more of these recordings that nobody's ever heard that we tucked away. There's a lot there and more stuff that dad recorded with Rick Rubin, so we're really excited to see it all come together.

What's coming up next for you?
Well, I've been working with Loretta Lynn on some music with her. I'm really excited about the record that I've done with her. Actually we've done five records and they're sitting in the can. It won't be long until some of those start coming out, one at a time. I'm doing some work with the Orbison estate and there's actually some old recordings that Roy did that will be coming out pretty soon. I'm working with Alex, Roy Jr., and Wesley — Roy's boys — on that. I have a novel out, Lupus Rex, that I wrote and am excited about that. I'm trying to stay creative.

Yeah, you sound very busy. These Loretta Lynn records you mention; you say there are five of them?
It's more like a life's work. I'm producing it with her daughter Patsy and there's all kinds of amazing records. There's a gospel record, a Christmas record, she re-cut her hits, there's a record of new songs, one of standards — it's an amazing compilation of her life.

Wow, that's great. So you've become a go-to guy for archival work?
Mm hm, yeah.

Listen to this interview with John Carter Cash from the Kreative Kontrol with Vish Khanna podcast in the player below.