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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March 14, 2023 @ 12:00 pm
I can’t imagine if a foundational story of Country music involved “Whiskey Glasses” echoing thru some penitentiary walls.
March 14, 2023 @ 1:11 pm
The only print of this photograph that, I believe, shows Mother Maybelle Carter leanin’ up against the wall behind Mr. Cash’s left shoulder, is hangin’ safely in a home in Stephenville, Texas.
When I met my most recent ex-wife back in 11′, she had it on the wall behind her bed. It’s a LARGE print & I’ll admit, it was a tad distractin’ to look up at Mr. Cash durin’ certain situations in said bedroom.
On a late December day in 13′, while she was packin’ up all her dishes out of an old trailer i was rentin’ between Stephenville & Dublin, she said, “You can keep Johnny Cash.” Which was on the wall right by the door walkin’ out of the master bedroom. She added “That way you know I’m sayin’ “F*@k You every day!”
It is one of my most cherished heirlooms.
March 14, 2023 @ 1:33 pm
Basically, country establishment and fans suck worse than all other genres combined. Today you don’t hear Alabama or George Strait on the radio. Doing the same thing now as they did back then. I listen to rock radio; they never throw the classics away.
March 14, 2023 @ 5:09 pm
That image was a very old photograph and circulated quite a bit when American Recordings used it in the advertisement in Billboard. I don’t think it was representative of what Johnny Cash was about or that it served him very well.
Whatever his personal demons and transgressions–I’m aware, from comments from other posters on this site, that an ex-member of Cash’s band wrote a “tell-all” book containing some lurid revelations or claims–Cash’s public persona was of a courteous individual. Yes, he got rowdy in some of his songs–like “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Cocaine Blues,” and during the prison concerts–but he didn’t convey that he lived a thug life. That’s why he became a maisntream star and was able to travel among presidents and ministers and musicians of all stripes.
Watch some of the clips from the old “Johnny Cash Show,” which ran on prime time network TV from 1969 to ’71. He was unfailingly courteous and even reverential to guests from Linda Ronstadt to Louis Armstrong to Bill Anderson and Jan Howard to Charley Pride. He was also self-deprecating: When he had Marty Robbins on the show, Cash recounted that after he had written and released the western, gun-themed song song “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” he ran into Marty and asked him what he was up to and that Robbins told him that he was working on a western song that would be bigger than that. And then Marty came out with “El Paso.” (Cash acknowledged that Robbins was true to his word.)
Cash did not make a habit of being vulgar in public. Of course, it was a different era, but Cash’s most famous curse word was one that the public did not get to hear: Cash utters a profanity in quoting the words of the ne’er-do-well father in the climactic moment of “A Boy Named Sue,” recorded live at San Quentin, but it was audibly bleeped out on the album, as well as on the radio single. Some 25 years later, when the album was remastered for a CD re-release, they finally “unbleeped” the recording and we finally got to hear Cash say “I’m the sunnova bitch that name you Sue.”
March 14, 2023 @ 8:40 pm
I can say going to see Johnny Cash in the early 60’s was a crap shoot. You might see a great show or you might see a guy in pretty rough shape. He was not above a vulger word or two. It didn’t stop me from going to his shows when ever I got a chance
March 15, 2023 @ 2:30 am
Ironically, before the American-era revitalization, Cash disliked the picture. It was the only photograph that he ever filed suit to stop from being bootlegged. By the time he reminded Nashville that he was bigger than it was, the photograph was probably the only one that captured how he felt about having the town he built treat him like a curiosity. Fortunately, he left this world as the reigning king once again of its music.
March 15, 2023 @ 6:39 am
I think it is also important to note in reference to this story that Cash had been unceremoniously dropped in 1986 after a 26-year relationship with Columbia/CBS Records that yielded the label millions of dollars and opened up the country market to younger fans. There was a time in Nashville when the legacy artists were appreciated. Bill Monroe was kept on Decca/MCA pretty much up until the time of his death. Rick Blackburn at CBS didn’t have that same loyalty to his older artists on the roster
After Columbia/CBS, Cash’s longtime pal, Steve Popovich, picked up the singer for seven albums at Mercury that didn’t fare all that well on the charts and were generally underappreciated. Rubin came along and introduced Cash to a new audience with his American Recordings and reaffirmed Cash’s place in American popular music history.
March 16, 2023 @ 5:58 am
Your comments are so true. It also proves how important marketing and branding are to being successful. The Rick Rubin American Recording Era for Cash was VERY successful because of the re-branding, presentation and marketing. Black album covers with a dour looking, menacing Johnny Cash, song selection and arrangements were carefully chosen for maximum impact. Rick Rubin was the eccentric long hair producer that put Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers and other edgy groups on the map. He brought a counter- culture audience with him that was all over Cash from the first chorus of Delia’s Gone. Then a Danzig song like 13, a Nine Inch Nails cover, a Soundgarden cover and Cash was a bad boy rocker, and an icon of rebellion. Metal heads , punks and the like loved it. Image and marketing made it. It probably was the most successful career rebrand in Music history.
March 25, 2023 @ 11:12 am
I grew up on johnny and found sobriety and truth and a little pain… but above all honesty
March 15, 2023 @ 11:23 am
What an absolute hero, I wish I’d have caught this music bug before he died and got to experience him in person. RIP OG outlaw.
March 17, 2023 @ 5:30 pm
Let’s be honest. Johnny Cash kinda cooked his own goose at Columbia. For most of the 1980’s he recorded anemic albums and released boring singles that even diehard Johnny Cash fans mostly ignored. When his contract came up for renewal in 1986 he reportedly asked his daughter Rosanne the details of her Columbia deal. Rosanne Cash was one of the label’s hottest acts at the time with a string of big hits and best selling albums. Cash asked Columbia for the same deal. Obviously it made no sense for Columbia. He had not had a top ten hit for five years and his album sales had plummeted. So they parted ways.
Cash then went to Mercury for a few years but it was generally the same story there. He even re-recorded his old hits rather than creating or finding compelling new songs.
Some blame belongs to the record labels but most of it is on Cash himself. During the late 70’s and 80’s he had resumed drug use and his erratic behavior returned. He fired his long-time friend and bass player Marshall Grant in a drug-fueled rage. Several accounts have been given of his reluctance to even record music in that era. Had Cash continued to make great recordings during that period but his record label failed to adequately promote them then they rightly deserve the blame. But a critical listen to recordings from that time will reveal that Cash was mostly phoning it in. I’m a long-time Johnny Cash fan and I was never excited by his post 1981 recordings. To be honest in my opinion his American Recordings were just marginally better although Cash obviously was finally engaged with creating new music again.
As for country radio Cash was caught in a perfect storm as the New Traditionalist movement of the late 1980’s put the focus squarely on newer and younger acts. There was an abundance of new talent creating exciting new music. However many veteran acts like Cash failed to rise to the occasion and release music as good as or better than the newer acts.
All performers have a life-cycle. Some last longer than others but all eventually decline in popularity. It’s unfortunate but that’s show biz. And that’s life.