When asked for the story behind this week's posthumous release of Johnny Cash's "Out Among the Stars," a "lost" album recorded in the early '80s with fabled Nashville producer Billy Sherrill, his son, John Carter Cash, quickly reels off a laundry list of reasons.
"It seemed to be a cohesive body of work," Cash, 44, said from the family's headquarters in Hendersonville, Tenn. A few years ago he came across the never-released recordings while organizing the bounty of archival materials left behind by his father and his mother, June Carter Cash, after their deaths in 2003.
"Working with [project co-producer] Steve Berkowitz," he said, "it struck us as a unique and beautiful Johnny Cash record."
But more than that, "Out Among the Stars" is a strongly personal project for John Carter Cash, the only child of Johnny and June.
"When these tapes were rediscovered and I heard them again, I was reminded of this man who was my friend," said Cash, who was 14 when most of the album's songs were recorded in 1984. "He and I were very close in 1980s. So it's a really personal connection for me to hear this."
The album includes two duets between Johnny and June, including "Baby Ride Easy," a song that Carlene Carter — June's daughter from her first marriage to country star Carl Smith — introduced to her mother and stepfather. (Carter also makes a present-day guest appearance on the recently completed track.)
There's also a pairing of Cash and longtime pal Waylon Jennings on Hank Snow's classic "I'm Movin' On" and "She Used to Love Me a Lot," a dark ballad of lost love that also appears in a haunting bonus track produced by Elvis Costello, who befriended Cash in the late 1970s.
Many longtime Cash fans are likely to find the album's highlight to be "I Came to Believe," one of two Cash originals. The song taps aspects of the recovery process that Cash experienced upon entering the Betty Ford Center in Palm Springs after becoming addicted to pain medication.
"A lot of people don't know it, but in the early '80s he had struggled with addiction, he had dark times and almost broke off his relationship and marriage with mother. It was a tough time, it really was," John Carter Cash said.
Cash was known throughout his life for his deep spiritual conviction, even when he wrestled with drug abuse in the 1950s and 1960s that nearly took his life.
But while going through a 12-step program for the first time, Cash incorporated that experience into "I Came to Believe," a waltz that stands as one of the most moving confessions of faith he ever recorded:
I couldn't manage the problems I brought on myself
And it just made it worse when I laid them on somebody else
So I finally surrendered it all, brought down in despair
I cried out for help, and I felt a warm comforter there
"When he came out [of the Betty Ford Center], after things had stabilized at home and it became apparent he was going to be a consistent human being again, he went into this period of great beauty within his soul," John Carter Cash said. "That's when he began to write a novel, called 'Man in White,' which was released not too long after that."
One reason these recordings never surfaced previously is that most weren't finished. John Carter Cash noted there were no guitar solos and that some of the other musical accompaniment was sparse, but not intentionally unadorned in the manner of his father's latter-day recordings with producer Rick Rubin.
So Cash's son enlisted friends to provide missing parts, among them Marty Stuart, who had been in his father's band and played on some of the original sessions, as well as several respected country and Americana players including Buddy Miller, Bryan Sutton and Jerry Douglas.
"It's still Mr. Sherrill's original production," John Carter Cash said, "and that's one of the highlights of the project. The real highlight is my father's booming voice. It was just one vocal take on all this stuff. His voice never sounded better."
Although there remains more unreleased material in the Cash archives, John Carter Cash said releases will be handled judiciously.
"It has to be right," he said. "It has to stand out and it's got to be something unique. We won't want to put out just another Johnny Cash recording."