By Francis Maguire
LONDON (Reuters) - Johnny Cash helped define American country music with hits such as "I Walk the Line" and "A Boy Named Sue", but in the early 1980s he recorded an album of songs his record label refused to release and is only now seeing the light of day.
"Out Among The Stars", which Cash, who died in 2003, recorded with legendary Nashville producer Billy Sherrill, will be released by Sony next week and includes duets with Cash's late wife, June Carter Cash, and Waylon Jennings.
The songs were never released in any form by Cash's label, Columbia, now owned by Sony, and were only rediscovered in 2012 when Cash's son, John Carter Cash, who has written extensively about his late parents, was cataloguing their archives.
"Originally produced by Billy Sherrill in 1984 and a couple of songs in '81, they exhibited my father and showed his creativity in a period of his life when not as many people knew about this music," Cash told Reuters on a recent trip to London.
At the time "Out Among The Stars" was recorded, country music was moving away from the sound that made Cash popular towards the 'countrypolitan' style championed by Garth Brooks.
Cash also endured a difficult personal struggle with drug addiction and being dropped by Columbia in 1986.
After he was let go by the label, "Out Among The Stars" remained in the vaults and was subsequently forgotten.
"Something that specifically worked for Johnny Cash was not what Columbia was interested in at the time, sadly. I believe they made a bad mistake and they didn't have the vision. However, you can look at it in different ways," Cash said.
"There was a string of Johnny Cash records that came out through that time period that weren't getting attention. Perhaps if it had been released it wouldn't have the same songs and it would have been just another record," he added.
"I don't think he was jealous of the other artists who were succeeding at the time period. It was not time for Johnny Cash to stand out in the light because the world around just wasn't as cool as he was."
"FIGURE OF MYSTERY"
The last decade has seen a resurgence in fortunes for the 'Man in Black', more than 10 years after his death. Much of this is due to the release of a series of "American" albums produced by Rick Rubin, the success of Cash's cover of the Nine Inch Nails track "Hurt" and the global success of the biopic "Walk the Line" starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.
Cash's son also believes part of his father's enduring popularity can be put down to his enigmatic personality.
"He endures because he's also a figure of mystery," he said.
Releasing the album was a not a simple decision for Cash, who said that he has to consider whether the album is individual and distinct enough to add to the Johnny Cash canon.
"It's a matter of integrity and spirit. You know, it's something beautiful and it's a personal connection with the family ... I think I would make a lot more people angry by not releasing this beautiful work than by putting it out," he said.
When he heard the songs for the first time in 2012, Cash was able to recall the recordings taking place when he was in the studio in the 1980s. He was also reminded of the work he did with his father in helping to produce his final albums.
There wasn't only music in the Cash archive as the couple were keen collectors of antique furniture and ancient books. They even stored away the keys they had been given to the cities of North America and a camel saddle from Saudi Arabia.
"There is more music. There are full records," Cash added. "The question is, is this something he would want released?"
"I have to be very careful, very thoughtful, and always will be. But I believe there's more that's worthy of release and that he would want the world to hear," he said.
(Editing by Michael Roddy and Gareth Jones)