A picture is worth a thousand words so they say. A couple of weeks back, Johnny Cash spoke volumes with an ad in the music industry trade publication Billboard. A black-and-white photo of Cash saluting Nashville with his middle finger dominated a full-page layout. The copy read “American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville Music establishment and country radio for your support.”
Cash is no stranger to controversy and this latest antic was pretty much taken in stride (and with more than a few chuckles) by most of the folks on Nashville’s famed Music Row. The legendary performer was, in a cheeky sort of way, celebrating his recent Grammy win. Cash’s American Recordings album, Unchained, was named the Country Album of the Year by the voting membership of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS).
Although no harm was intended by Cash’s gesture, he was making a pointed (no pun intended) statement not only for himself but also for his fellow disenfranchised country performers: We’re still viable artists. We can still win awards. Just give us some support! It is no secret that older country artists such as Cash, Merle Haggard, George Jones and other older, established performers are finding it increasingly more difficult to garner airplay on today’s country radio stations. You can rest assured that Jones, Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson all got a real belly laugh out of Cash’s ad.
Much has been said and written about the absence of older artists from the radio airwaves recently. A great deal of the criticism levied upon country radio has come from the artists themselves. It appears to be a frustrating situation for all involved. Jones, Cash and Haggard all have released outstanding albums in recent years with very little fanfare and even less airplay.
With country label rosters literally bursting at the seams with new, young talent, there’s a glut of performers vying for precious airplay. Radio programmers need to generate revenue and claim that they need to keep young listeners tuned in because they are the ones the advertisers are targeting. As a result, the older artists have been cast adrift by contemporary country radio.
Now some of Nashville’s radio industry executives have responded to Cash with a very generous proposition. WSM radio station manager Bob Meyer and operations manager Kyle Cantrell extended an olive branch to Cash and offered him the use of the historic Ryman Auditorium for a concert. In their on-air appeal, the radio executives vowed to broadcast the concert live over WSM-AM and WSM-FM bands with proceeds from the event going to a charity of Cash’s choice. Said Cantrell, “We’re sad that he feels that way about the industry, that he thinks we’re not supportive of him and his Grammy-winning album.”
Cash responded to their offer by calling WSM shortly after the early-morning announcement was made. Cantrell indicated that Cash talked with on-air personality Ron Jordan a “good little while on the air.” Cash said, “I would be willing if I were able to, but I’m not working this year at all. I will not forget your offer though, and when I’m back to work, then I’ll give you a call and we’ll talk about it. I really do appreciate it, though. It’s really nice of you guys to do that.” Cash, who was diagnosed with the Shye-Draegger Syndrome last year and is taking some much-needed time off from the road.
Cantrell expressed some concern that Cash’s Billboard ad might be misconstrued by some individuals and said that WSM’s offer was “an attempt to make a positive out of a negative.” In an interview with country.com Cantrell stated, “In case he (Johnny) was wondering, we wanted him to know we appreciate him. Without artists like Johnny Cash there would not be a country music industry. We (at WSM) have a deep appreciation for the legends of country music and we as industry need to appreciate these people.”