Johnny Cash’s Finger

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As he grew old, Johnny Cash came to resent the Nashville country-music establishment, which all but abandoned him and the other aging “country” artists who had defined the genre to embrace new pop-oriented country artists like Garth Brooks. His late album Unchained (1996) was virtually ignored by the establishment.

However, the album won a Grammy for Best Country Album. Cash and his producers American Recordings posted an advertisement in Billboard Magazine with the above image as a “thank you” to the Nashville country music industry after winning the award. The infamous photo of Cash giving the middle finger to the camera was taken back in 1969 during his San Quentin prison performance.

A tireless advocate for the prison reform, Cash began performing concerts at various prisons starting in the late 1960s, leading to two highly successful live albums, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968) and Johnny Cash at San Quentin (1969). In the latter prison, when Cash performed his prison song “San Quentin” (“I hate every inch of you/May you rot and burn in hell/May your walls fall and may I live to tell”), he nearly caused an uprising. The definitive, iconoclastic image made its way into Cash’s Hollywood biopic, Walk the Line, but the gesture was actually shot during a rehearsal session toward the annoying cameraman, the concert’s official photographer Jim Marshall.