Do you know the full story behind the iconic image of Johnny Cash flipping the bird? Cash long had a reputation as an outlaw, and he was jailed seven times. Interestingly, he never spent more than one night in jail at a time, as each of the charges was a misdemeanor. He empathized with prisoners, poor people, and other groups forgotten or maligned by society. He often performed concerts at prisons. It was at one of these events that the photographer Jim Marshall asked him for “a shot for the warden”. The resulting image is well known and can sum up JC’s general attitude toward authority. Marshall has since called it “probably the most ripped off photograph in the history of the world.”
The photo was not made famous until 1998. Johnny was working with the producer Rick Rubin at American Recordings. Rubin started out as the DJ for the Beastie Boys, and had worked as a producer with a number of rock, metal, and pop bands. Rick introduced Cash to a new generation of musicians. The resulting cross-pollination reinvigorated Cash’s career and won him fans across multiple genres. The Man In Black was back! Their second collaborative album Unchained won the 1998 Grammy for Best Country Album.
Despite the critical recognition and commercial success, Nashville and country music radio was not supportive of Cash’s new venture. He got almost no airplay on traditional country stations and Nashville snubbed him. Rubin was not very familiar with the genre, and did not understand the lack of support. He took out a full page ad in Billboard Magazine, with the picture of Cash flipping the bird, and included the text “American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support”.
Although it was before images “went viral” the sentiment struck a chord with a number of other artist who felt that the country music establishment was too inflexible with the definition of the genre. Willie Nelson reportedly hung the ad up on his tour bus, “John speaks for all of us. Everyone who comes in has to see it." It has since become a legendary and iconic image.
John R. Cash September 12, 2003 at the age of 71. He was not confined or defined by musical genres. This refusal to be limited, and his considerable crossover appeal earned him the rare distinction of induction in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.