On This Date: Merle Haggard Witnessed The “Power Of Johnny Cash” As An Inmate At San Quentin Prison

Johnny Cash San Quentin country music
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January 1st… New Year’s Day.

An important day in the history of country music as it was the day of Hank Williams tragic “last ride.” Yes, January 1st, 1953, the country music world said goodbye to a pioneer, the great Hank Williams, at just 29 years of age.

However, just a few years later, on that very same day, another country music pioneer was formed.

January 1st, 1959, was the day that Johnny Cash played one of his iconic concert at San Quentin State Prison, the maximum-security prison just outside of San Francisco.

And one of the inmates in San Quentin State Prison in 1959 was none other than the great Merle Haggard.

Just 20 years old at the time, Merle Haggard was blown away by Johnny Cash, and at that moment, he decided to straighten up, give up a life of crime, and get serious about making country music (you know, as soon as he got out of jail).

According to Rolling Stone, Cash lost his voice, but still was able to hold a room full of convicts in the palm of his hand:

“He lost his voice that day. It was just a whisper. But his charismatic manners sold him to the convicts. They really liked him, and I did, too, and I was prepared not to like him for some reason.

When he didn’t have a voice and he was able to bring the people around, I understood the power of Johnny Cash. It was overwhelming.”

In fact, according to Merle, everybody in the prison loved Johnny:

“He had the right attitude. He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards—he did everything the prisoners wanted to do.

He was a mean mother from the South who was there because he loved us. When he walked away, everyone in that place had become a Johnny Cash fan.” 

The Hag wound up only serving 2 years of his 15 year sentence at San Quentin (the only prison that could hold him). He was eventually pardoned by California Governor Ronald Regan.

Of course, Johnny Cash would return to San Quentin in 1969. That concert was recorded and released as an album, the Grammy-nominated At San Quentin  album, and was also released as a television documentary titled, Johnny Cash in San Quentin.

Years after that San Quentin show, 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.’”

They later made the same joke on an episode of The Johnny Cash Show in 1969. The conversation went a little something like this:

Haggard: “Funny you mention that, Johnny.”
Cash: “What?”
Haggard: “San Quentin.”
Cash: “Why’s that?”
Haggard: “The first time I ever saw you perform, it was at San Quentin.”
Cash: “I don’t remember you being in that show, Merle.”
Haggard: “I was in the audience, Johnny.”

And the rest is history.

Here’s a look back at Johnny Cash’s 1969 concert at San Quentin

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