March 14, 1998 ~ Weeks after Johnny Cash‘s “Unchained” wins the Grammy for Best Country Album, his producer Rick Rubin takes out this full-page ad in Billboard.
The photo of course is the classic from the lens of Jim Marshall taken at the legendary San Quentin prison concert Johnny put on in 1969. (Cash made the gesture after being asked to “do a shot for the warden.”)
The photo was not widely seen until Rubin used it in the ad to make the point that Cash got the Grammy win even without support from country radio, which had little use for the aging legend on their playlists. But while country stations remained enamored with the likes of Shania Twain and Garth Brooks, Cash found a wider audience with Unchained, which had cross-genre appeal.
The photo hangs on the walls of many. It’s on my office wall. Willie Nelson even hangs it in his tour bus as an emblem of real country music.
January 13, 1968 ~ Backed by June, Carl Perkins and The Tennessee Three, Johnny Cash performs at Folsom Prison before 2000 inmates.
The Man In Black plays two shows for inmates at Folsom Prison in California. Unlike his previous prison concerts, they are recorded and packaged into his acclaimed live album “At Folsom Prison.”
Cash had been playing prisons since 1957 and had become an advocate for reform. He had never recorded one of his penitentiary shows, as his label, Columbia Records, didn’t like the idea of their artist being associated with a jail.
“At Folsom Prison” lands at #1 on the Country chart and got Cash his own TV series the following year. He cites it as one of his greatest accomplishments, as it helps draw attention to the plight of prisoners.
Wanted! The Outlaws is a compilation album by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser consists entirely of previously released material. It’s also the first “country” album I ever bought. Apparently, I wasn’t alone — it earned its place in music history by becoming the first country album to be platinum-certified, reaching sales of one million.
The Hagg releases his fifth album on January 2, 1968. The title track has quite the story.
“Sing Me Back Home” was actually written while Merle was waiting to get out of San Quintin Prison. He and his cellmate Jimmy “Rabbit” Kenrick shared one thing in common. Their love for freedom and how often the two had escaped from prison. As Merle told the story in his ’81 autobiography, Merle Haggard: Sing Me Back Home, Rabbit devised a brilliant escape and asked The Hagg to join him. After some discussion both decided it was best for Merle to stay put. Rabbit was captured two weeks later and eventually executed for the murder of a state trooper. Haggard, the “guitar playing friend”, wrote the song as a tribute.
Born on September 17, 1923, Hiram King “Hank” Williams Sr. scored his first hit in 1947 with “Move It On Over.” Although his career in the spotlight only lasted 4 years, in that 4 years he forever changed the face of popular music. His songs would be recorded by everyone from Perry Como to Isaac Hayes to the Melvins to Social Distortion.
Very few artists have transcended the genres like Hank and certainly no one has ever put words to paper quite like him. His nickname, “Hillbilly Shakespeare,” only speaks to his greatness.