Keeping the Blues Alive / Blues News  / Photo Of The Week: Johnny Cash Performing At San Quentin Prison

This week’s “photo of the week” is a picture that was taken in 1970 at one of Johnny’s concerts at San Quentin Prison. Photographer Jim Marshall asked Cash to give him a shot for the warden and this shot had its birth.

You didn’t see too much of the picture for many years. In the late 80s, country music started to change. It started to sound less and less like traditional country. It’s no secret that Cash and his label Columbia, which he had been his home for almost 30 years, were not not seeing eye to eye. He was eventually dropped by the label and this crushed him. He recorded with Mercury Records for a few years, but with no success.

Then, in 1993, Cash made headlines again for a very unusual recording. He sang the song “The Wanderer” on U2’s Zooropa album. Shortly after that, he was offered a contract on Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label. Well, not everyone was thrilled about this, including Johnny’s own daughter Rosanne Cash. She thought that Rubin, who was known more for his work with the Beastie Boys and Slayer than for working with a country artist, was going to use him. Boy, was she wrong. It seems that Rubin awoke a sleeping beast, a creative beast that had not been that hungry in years.

In 1994, Cash recorded American Recordings in his own living room. It won him a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. The next thing you knew, Cash was everywhere. He was recording with the likes of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and  Brooks and Dunn. He appeared several times on the successful television series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and even provided his own voice for an episode of The Simpsons. A whole new generation were discovering the Man in Black.

He then recorded the album Unchained with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and that album won him another Grammy Award. This time it was in 1998 and it was for Best Country Album. What? How can you win a Grammy for Best Country Album when country radio isn’t even playing anything from it? I think Rick Rubin may have been thinking the same thing. So, he took out a full page ad in Billboard Magazine, reportedly costing $20,000.

“American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support.”

At the bottom of the ad, it also included Johnny Cash “Unchained”, Winner Best Country Album. Some who later saw the ad “got it”, while others didn’t. You see, Cash was giving Nashville and country radio the finger for turning their backs on him because he wasn’t seen as being “popular” or “commercial” anymore. Well, guess who had the last laugh?

Now, that picture taken on a whim in a prison back in 1970 is almost as famous as the man in it. It’s on posters and t-shirts everywhere. I love the story of the ad and of the picture and how the two found each other after nearly 30 years.  I love telling the story and I hope that this article will remind some of the story of the classic middle finger picture, while maybe educating others who didn’t know about it. – Credits: / jpdeuce73