Johnny Cash’s Famous Middle Finger

July 18, 2010 - By Trigger  //  Outlaw History  //  35 Comments

johnny-cash-middle-finger-mean-eyed-catLast week when I posted a link to Johnny Cash’s American Recordings Outtakes I posted a sign of Johnny shooting the bird. Not the first time I’ve posted that picture, but after some inquires and a few conversations over it, it’s come to my attention that maybe the story behind Johnny Cash’s middle finger is not as well-known as I’d thought.

That sign specifically comes from the Cash-themed restaurant/bar/venue The Mean Eyed Cat in Austin, but it is an artists rendition memorializing a gonzo moment in country music history.

The finger photo itself was shot at a Cash concert in 1969 at California’s San Quentin prison by photographer Jim Marshall. The pose was the result of Cash’s response to the request: “John, let’s do a shot for the warden.” Marshall has since said it was “probably the most ripped off photograph in the history of the world.”

However the picture remained relatively obscure until 1998. At the time Johnny was working with legendary producer Rick Rubin on his American Recordings albums. Rick revitalized Cash’s career, introducing him to a new generation of fans spanning multiple genres. Commercially and critically the albums were successful. The second American album Unchained (included the song “Mean Eyed Cat”) won the 1998 Grammy for Best Country Album.

But could you hear Johnny Cash’s music on the country radio? Not so much.

Rick Rubin started his career as the DJ for The Beastie Boys, and later on went to work with groups like Slayer, Metallica, and Tom Petty. Rick had never dealt with being snubbed by radio, but when he took on his first country artist, he learned country was a different animal. Rubin called country radio a “trendy scene,” and decided to fire a shot right at Music Row.

Rubin dug deep and pulled out $20,000 to take a full page ad out in Billboard Magazine. The ad featured the famous Cash bird flipping, and the caption: “American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support.”

“We hope it will open the eyes of the country community and hopefully they’ll say, ‘The guy did win'” said Rick, “And he’s making records considered the best in country and maybe we should readdress the situation.

Willie Nelson loved the ad and hung it up in his bus. “John speaks for all of us. Everyone who comes in has to see it.”

George Jones loved the ad too and made one of his own to promote his song “Wild Irish Rose” showing George surrounded by basketballs, footballs and baseballs and the caption, “If radio had any, they’d play this record.”

“All of us older artists feel that way. Radio gives us one of the biggest insults there is when they don’t play our music. If no one is going to stick up for us, we’ll have to do it ourselves.”

The picture of Johnny Cash and his protruding middle digit has now become iconic, and can be found on T-shirts and stickers and all over the internet. I acknowledge that many like it simply for the rawness, but to me it symbolizes the struggle of REAL country artists. Many assert that traditional country fans don’t like modern pop country simply because it’s popular, and only like “obscure” country because it isn’t. Johnny Cash proved a few of important things:

1. Just because something is popular, doesn’t mean it is the best.

2. Country radio is/was out of touch with what people wanted and is showing no leadership, or as George said, “balls.”

3. Most importantly, and most dangerously for country radio, Johnny proved that you can be successful without country radio’s support.


PS: If anyone has the George Jones “balls” ad, please send it along.

Source: Karen Thomas, USA TODAY

35 Comments to “Johnny Cash’s Famous Middle Finger”

  • This image is all of us. Rock and fucking roll.


  • Johnny Cash Legends Never Die

    Artistic Tattoos by Tony Geraghty, III – Ink & Dagger Tattoos, 1137 Bardstown Rd, Louisville, KY 40204 – 502-614-8666





    • I’m not entirely sure, but I don’t think John intended for this picture to go so “iconic”. I’m 19, so bit inexperienced, but I love all of his music and the meanings that come with them.

      As the virtuous man that I can honestly say Johnny Cash is, was, and hopefully always will be; I think he must be begging God’s forgiveness for this picture.

      Yeah, it meant a lot towards the fact that the Music Industry has become a literal Game with no meaning (no good meaning at least), but most people today, mainly the youth (and I would know, I’m part of it) take this picture as a lesson of “hey, see? it’s okay! If Johnny effin CASH would do it, then it’s gotta be alright!”

      What they don’t realize is the severe emotion required to make a man of Cash’s caliber stoop to such a low level as to use profane gestures.

      You’ll notice none of his songs have cursing

      I’m pretty sure that was no accident.

      I haven’t seen a person stand up for this man’s virtuosity, yet; so I will.

      Go get ‘em, Cash. You now you’ve got His forgiveness. But maybe you should tell the youth that this isn’t acceptable behavior on the regular…


      • A Boy Named Sure has swearing in it.


      • maybe at 19, you had better get a life -and live it before concerning yourself with an adult using profanity in any form. I’m feeling confident, God, doesn’t give a god damn about it.


      • I think you are putting too much ‘sin’ on Johnny flippin the bird. It’s an iconic image of rebellion, not some evil act. Try not to literalize things too much or let some preacher on a pulpit tell you what right and wrong is.


  • I have a giant poster of the JC photo hanging over my desk. I forget what I paid but I got it at Spincers Gifts.


  • I didn’t know the background….interesting info




  • Johnny Cash always took risks but he also felt deeper than most people. He could feel the things most people just overlook. He was one of a kind, one of the best, and probably sums up the angst of country better than anyone, excluding Hank Sr, as he battled the demons of corporate Nashville and won. The coporate country music money wheel will NEVER recreate another Johnny Cash no matter how hard they try.

    Speaking of Johnny Cash, am I the only one who thinks Bob Wayne’s “Ain’t no Diesel Trucks in Heaven” and Joe Buck’s #21 on the Outlaw Radio Compilation vol. 1 sound like the man in black?? I love that whole CD.


  • I have a friend who has a t-shirt with that picture on it and always wanted one and wondered where a person could get one?


    • Rock America sells them for 20$


  • Thanks Trigger for the info. Very interesting. Down with Pop country!




  • Awesome feature! I loved the pic so much I had it tattooed on me, right on my inner left arm/ armpit area, God that was like 8 years ago. I also have a “Country Heros” piece with Johnny, Hank Sr., Waylon, and DAC on Mount Rushmore. Gotta respect your elders!


  • I was working in a CD store in 1998, and the owner had that Cash photo on his office door. I don’t think he was in there listening to Johnny Cash, but I always dug the poster. Never knew the story behind it, thanks Triggerman.


  • does anyone know who shot this pic?


    • Did you read the 3rd paragraph of the article, by chance?


  • @susi brooks good question. i also once read that johnny did not like this image- but i can’t find any information on it now. maybe in a biography somewhere. i read this many years ago.


  • The photo was taken by the legendary Jim Marshall.



  • Being a musician and a rock and roll/blues lover I have always enjoyed Johnny Cash. JC had his own style and he was set apart from the country crap that has hit the radio in the last 30 years or so. There are some good ones, however I call the crap that come out of Nashville the Bubble Gum Country of the 80 on to now. It is simply the same shit over and over. They add a steel guitar to any kind of crap and call it country.

    The singers throw in a you-all drawl and again call it country. The idiots at the radio stations follow the trend and call it country. So it must be country, right? If you take one of the songs by the Archie’s from the 1970s and throw in a pedal steel with some clown with a potty chair styled hat and tight ass jeans, it must be country, huh? Can’t you just hear it: Oh Sugar, twang twang ya’ll Sugar twang sugar. Going Boin bwaaaang, wow listen to that good country music by the Archies! Man dey be so good old home boyz. LOL

    There was to much horse poo country music brought on by the media tied in the the record companies. They said comply of die and many did just that, they would die before they conformed to the bubble gum crap cookie cutter country music. Thanks to people like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison and a few others who did it their way we still had some damn good music to listen to, however one needed to buy their albums because it was not on the radio much.


  • johnny cash is beast


  • The story:

    “In a recently revealed quote, Marshall, who passed away last March at the age of 74, told the San Francisco Art Exchange that the photograph was the result of Cash’s response to a simple request.

    “I said, ‘John, let’s do a shot for the warden.’ ”

    Marshall added that the photo was “probably the most ripped off photograph in the history of the world.”


    • Good info! Somebody liked to that story above as well. I think I’ll add that info up top for folks!


  • I grew up hating country music, but then i realized, that just like any other genre of music… there’s the older, better kind… and the newer, shittier kind.


  • Hey, his song “One Piece At A Time” is about stealing.
    Admittedly, in a humorous way…..

    I don’t think Johnny claimed to be a saint, by any means.
    He even did jail time, himself….


    • oh please, a few one nighters in a county jail should not be counted. many of us have spent one night in jail…and then nothing came of it.


  • You forget that in the same year that Johnny Cash won the Grammy he wasn’t even nominated for the Country Music Awards.


  • What is the George Jones “balls” ad?


  • This goes back to what I’ve always said,and I’m speaking for myself when I say this.If a so called Country radio station won’t play songs by my favorite singer: Loretta Lynn,I won’t listen to them at all.(If the station DOES play Loretta songs,I DO listen to them.If they don’t,I won’t).

    As a fan of Loretta’s,and I’m sure you fans of other stars like her,Dolly,Gene Watson,Merle Haggard,George Jones,Johnny Cash,Reba Mcentire,etc,we fans are sick and tired of all the excuses being given to us by many of these country stations in the US & Canada trying to get off the hook with us the lister who call or write to request these stars songs on the radio.

    Many of these stars are still selling out concert venues with people who are attending to see these stars in concert.Common sense tells me,if no one wanted to hear these stars in concert,they would not be paying to see them.That also telsl me,if they want to see them in concert,they also wanna hear them on the radio.

    A lot of new stars that sing real country music also cannot get radio air play.People like Ashton Shepard,and others.Also people like Clint Black,Travis Tritt,Randy Travis,can’t get radio airplay anymore.

    Another thing to consider Country Radio: If people did not wanna hear this music on the radio,the majority of us fans would not be listening to Willie’s Roadhouse on Sirius XM radio,or listening on line to WSM radio,or to the stations that stream their signal on the web that DO play the stars songs we wanan hear.Think about that Country radio.You would not be loosing listners if you played songs by the stars we wanna hear.


  • I ment to say wanna hear.Typing error.Sorry.


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