Merle Haggard Recalls How He Escaped Prison 17 Times Before Being Sent To San Quentin

Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard
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Merle friggin’ Haggard.

Outlaw country legend, pioneer in the genre, and some would even call him the GOAT in country music.

And if you know anything about Merle Haggard, you know that he was famously in the audience when Johnny Cash performed his legendary San Quentin concert in 1958.

Why was he in San Quentin? Because according to Merle, it was the only jail that could hold him.

In a 2010 interview with Vanity Fair, Merle recalled his multiple trips to jail, and his multiple escapes… 17 of them to be exact:

“I was scared to death. I was just 19 at the time, and I’d already been in a lot of jails. San Quentin is the last place you go. I wasn’t really that bad a guy.

They just couldn’t hold me anywhere else. I escaped 17 different times, so they sent me there because I was an escape risk. When I walked out on the grounds of San Quentin, I was scared. I was there two years and nine months.”

In a profile with GQ, Merle detailed more regarding his escape methods, whether it was hopping fences or breaking through doors, and sometimes… just walking right out:

“I noticed early on that people looked right at you and didn’t see you. If you just walked the right speed, you could almost walk right through them.”

According to a 1990 interview with the New Yorker, Merle admitted that back then, guys like Clyde Barrow and Jesse James were his idols.

“I got in trouble on purpose… I wanted to experience the things I had heard in Jimmie Rodgers’ songs, I wanted to be a Clyde Barrow. Jesse James was one of my idols.”

And of course, San Quentin was where Merle first saw Johnny Cash perform live, sparking his desire to join the jailhouse band and ultimately pursue a serious career in country music.

Years later, Merle would meet Johnny in a bathroom, about to play a show together, and they started talking about that iconic San Quentin show. But for some reason, Johnny couldn’t remember Merle performing…

And that’s because Merle wasn’t performing…

“Yeah, he thought I might’ve been one of the performers. I had to tell him, ‘No, I was in the audience.'”

And the rest is history.

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