25 Years Ago: Johnny Cash Flips the Bird at Nashville Establishment

Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve likely seen the iconic image of Johnny Cash aggressively flipping the bird from back in the day. In fact, you’ve probably seen it all over the place, perhaps to where you may be tired of seeing it at this point. In the early 2000s when Johnny Cash got so hot that it became trendy to wear his T-shirts, you could even find ones of The Man In Black flipping the bird at Hot Topic stores in the mall. Johnny Cash went from a virtual unknown in the modern world to so super cool among hipsters, actual country music and Johnny Cash fans started resenting his popularity.

But many people take for granted that the iconic photo of Johnny Cash and his offensive gesture were not really that well-known to the world … until 25 years ago today. Sure, the photo had made the rounds here and there. It wasn’t completely lost in time. But appreciate that in 1998, it was well before the wide proliferation of the internet, and old photos of Johnny Cash weren’t exactly what people got excited over. Unless you had a book with the photo … or a magazine … you may have never seen it.

Some people also forget the circumstances of how the iconic Johnny Cash photo was introduced to the public. And no, it wasn’t on a T-shirt at Hot Topic, or as an internet meme. It actually came about from a topic that is near and dear to the hearts of many country music fans: The corruption of the Nashville music establishment and mainstream country radio.

The middle finger photo itself was shot at Johnny Cash’s 1969 concert at California’s San Quentin prison by photographer Jim Marshall, who took many of the iconic photos of rock stars in the 60s and 70s—folks like Jim Morrison, Jefferson Airplane, and The Beatles. Marshall was the head photographer at Woodstock. The pose was the result of Johnny Cash’s response to Jim Marshall’s 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.”

In the mid 1990s, Johnny Cash had gone mostly forgotten by the country music establishment and the rest of the world. But producer Rick Rubin had not forgotten about Johnny, and got excited about the challenge of revitalizing Cash’s career. Johnny Cash was initially skeptical about working with Rick Rubin. He wanted to give his career one last hurrah after having been abandoned by the country music industry proper, but he also didn’t know if Rick Rubin would have the right approach. After all, Rubin had come up working with bands like The Beastie Boys and Slayer. But Rubin assured Cash that all creative control would remain his.

The collaboration with Rick Rubin began in 1994 with the original American Recordings album released to nearly universal acclaim. It was just Johnny Cash, his guitar, and classic songs. As successful as the album was, it was still very much a creature of the underground. Knowledge of it was passed around in indie rock circles, among audiophiles and fellow musicians, and within the burgeoning underground country music scene, because of course country radio wouldn’t touch it, streaming wasn’t around yet, and the internet was still in its infant stages.

Unchained in 1996 added a bit more instrumentation from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, members of Fleetwood Mac, and Marty Stuart, and once again was met with universal critical acclaim. But Rick Rubin and his label American Recordings were confounded how Nashville and country radio seemed perfectly ignorant and uninterested in the groundswell of support building behind Johnny Cash and the revitalization of his career. Coming from the rock and hip-hop world, Rubin was not used to the type of insular environment that persisted on Music Row and the country music industry.

At the 40th Annual Grammy Awards held on February 25, 1998 at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, Johnny Cash stunned the country world when he won for Best Country Album over Alan Jackson, George Strait, Dwight Yoakam, and Patty Loveless. It was like a shot right across the bow of the industry. But Rick Rubin was not done.

Riding high off the victory, Rick Rubin pulled out $20,000 in 1998 money, and placed a full page ad in the Billboard issue that went to stands on March 14th, 1998. This was where the world was exposed to Johnny Cash’s notorious middle finger photo snapped by Jim Marshall, accompanied with the caption, “American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support,” and a note about Unchained winning the Grammy for Best Country Album.

The ad definitely got the attention of the music world, and became a story all unto itself. “We hope it will open the eyes of the country community and hopefully they’ll say, ‘The guy did win.’ And he’s making records considered the best in country and maybe we should readdress the situation,” said Rick Rubin at the time.

The ad also became a rallying cry for a lot of country music’s older artists that just like Johnny Cash, had been taken off the radio, and generally forgotten by the country industry. 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,” he said.

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,” said Jones.

Even many years later, the spirit of the Johnny Cash ad lived in the actions of Sturgill Simpson. After winning the same Best Country Album Grammy for A Sailor’s Guide to Earth in 2017, Sturgill showed up outside the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville where the CMA Awards were happening and started busking outside. He livestreamed the whole thing on Facebook. It illustrating the ever-present divide in country music between critical acclaim and the commercial industry.

Ultimately, the Johnny Cash ad and photo were effective, at least somewhat. Though country radio never relented to playing the new Johnny Cash music, people were now paying attention. In 2002 when Cash released the Rick Rubin-produced American IV: The Man Comes Around with its cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt,” the song and the album exploded. The album went #2 on the Billboard Country Albums chart, and when the 2003 CMA Awards rolled around, American IV won Album of the Year. The Nashville music establishment was finally paying attention.

Soon thereafter, Johnny Cash was all over the place. Due to the photo and the ad, he became a symbol of rebellion and the anti-establishment well beyond the country music realm. As MySpace and social media proliferated, the iconic photo became a meme, and every kid had a Johnny Cash T-shirt.

Johnny Cash ultimately became trendy, but the origins of the photo, how it was presented to the world, and the powerful effect it had on the country music industry and the culture at large remain pure. In the age of streaming media and video, Johnny Cash flipping the bird still captures a moment in time, and says more than any words ever could. It embodies the rebellion of Johnny Cash, and just like his music, it will live on forever.

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