One of the most popular country performers, Merle Haggard, was sentenced to 15 years in San Quentin on a burglary charge. But did you know when he first met Johnny Cash? And how did this encounter influence him to make better choices?
Johnny Cash performed for San Quentin State Prison in the 50s. At the time, he didn’t know that Merle Haggard was part of the audience. Haggard talked about his encounter with Cash in his autobiography and how it helped him become a better man.
Who was Merle Haggard?
Merle Ronald Haggard was born on April 6, 1937, in Oildale, California. Haggard was born to a railroad father who struggled with the rest of the nation in the Great Depression. Haggard turned to a life of petty crime after his father’s demise when he was nine.
He soon found himself in and out of juvenile facilities by the time he was fourteen. Haggard was then incarcerated in California’s San Quentin State Prison in 1957 on a burglary charge. Upon his release, he began his career in music, playing in bars and clubs until he joined Wynn Stewart and Buck Owens. Haggard’s first recording was released in 1962, and his first hit song, The Fugitive, was released in 1967.
In 1969, Haggard formed his band, The Strangers, and was arguably a legendary band in the country music scene. The band was voted band of the year by the Academy of Country Music Awards eight times. (Source: Britannica)
By 1989, Haggard had amassed forty number one singles. He continued being a musician until his death on April 6, 2016, having recorded more than 100 albums and earned a star on Hollywood Boulevard. (Source: Merle Haggard)
Johnny Cash’s Influence on Merle Haggard
Merle Haggard was only 20 years old when he was an inmate at San Quentin State Prison in 1959. In that same year, the famous singer Johnny Cash performed for San Quentin as part of his tours for prisons in the 50s.
Haggard watched Cash’s show and inspired him to pursue a career in the music industry. He started a band in prison. Soon after, he focused on country music when he was released from jail and recorded Sing a Sad Song in 1962. (Source: The Hawk)
In 1963, Haggard and Cash both appeared on a TV show in Chicago. While in the restroom, Cash asked Haggard, Haggerty, you ever do anything like this? While Cash was holding a pill in his hand.
The pill was Dexedrine, an anti-drowse drug that was popular in their time. The two legends took it and washed it down with wine from Cash’s flask. This moment signified a lifelong friendship.
Haggard and Cash became like brothers, making fun of each other in their shows or on-air. They also looked out for each other. Haggard remembers Cash calling him when he missed one of his shows in Oregon, checking on him and making sure Haggard wasn’t overdoing his drug usage.
Cash also helped Haggard confront his past as he knew Haggard was ashamed of what he had done when he was younger. At the time, Cash had a show on ABC, The Johnny Cash Show. Cash, known for his strong belief in redemption and that everyone has a chance to change, persuaded Haggard to talk about his past on national television. (Source: Outsider)