Merle Haggard was one of the greatest artists in outlaw country. He is a legend whose songs and legacy will continue to inspire artists and fans for years to come. It wasn’t just his music that made him the icon that he is today, though. Part of what made Merle a legend was his outlaw spirit. He didn’t sugar coat things. He did things his way. Back in 2009, he remembered a time that he had some choice words for his former record label head while accepting an award from Country Radio Broadcasters. It seemed that over two decades hadn’t softened his opinion on the man who cut Johnny Cash from their label.
It makes sense that Merle Haggard would still be upset on Johnny Cash’s behalf. Haggard credits Cash with inspiring him to take up music instead of crime. So, while accepting a career achievement award from Country Radio Broadcasters, Haggard took a moment to look back on his spats with former CBS records executive Rick Blackburn.
Merle Haggard Defends Johnny Cash
According to CMT, it all started when Emmylou Harris performed Haggard’s “Kern River” and took a moment to talk about how much she loved the song. It was so good, Harris said, that when she first heard the song she “Almost drove off the road,” because she was so struck by the song.
This praise made Merle Haggard think about the trouble that Blackburn had given him over the song. He started by saying “I want to say that there was this other guy — I can’t remember his name — he was head of CBS, and he made fun of my song. He said, ’Who in the hell knows where Kern River is at?’”
After a member of the audience yelled Blackburn’s name, Haggard continued talking about his former label head. Apparently, Blackburn hated “Kern River” and took every opportunity to tell Haggard about it. At one point, Haggard pretty much told the exec to go straight to hell over his dislike of the song. He then reminded him of what Merle saw as his biggest failure.
Merle Haggard told the crowd, “I said, ’Who do you think you are? You’re the son-of-a-b—h that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash. Let it go down in history that you’re the dumbest son-of-a-b—h I’ve ever met.’”
Why Blackburn Dropped Johnny Cash
The story of Johnny Cash being dropped from his label has become the stuff of legend. Cash found out that he had been dropped when he opened up the newspaper one morning. According to Rick Blackburn, it all came down to money.
By 1986, Johnny Cash was waning in popularity. The label said he wasn’t selling as well Cash said that the label wasn’t promoting him enough. The Man in Black was at the end of his contract and had been given a great offer to sign with Mercury Records. Blackburn felt that Cash wanted more than he was worth to re-sign and couldn’t match Mercury’s offer.
Johnny Cash was supposed to be able to announce the change of label on his own terms. However, according to Blackburn, a reporter from “The Tennessean” saw the paperwork on Blackburn’s desk and broke the story without authorization. Before long, “USA Today” picked up the story. The cat was out of the bag and there was no putting it back in.
The news caused outrage in the country music world. Members of the music industry as well as the fans were all flabbergasted by the decision to drop such an iconic figure from the label. Looking back on it, Blackburn still feels that he made the right choice.
In the end, this allowed Johnny Cash to eventually sign with American Recordings in 1994. Label head and legendary producer Rick Rubin helped Cash get back on top of the chards. This partnership resulted in Cash’s “American” albums which saw him covering a variety of artists from Doc Watson to Nine Inch Nails. So, we agree with Blackburn. It was the best choice for all of us. Merle Haggard probably isn’t wrong either. It’s a double-edged sword, really.