Merle Haggard Thought Johnny Cash Was “Kind Of Corny” Until He Saw Him Play At San Quentin Prison

Merle Haggard Thought Johnny Cash Was “Kind Of Corny” Until He Saw Him Play At San Quentin Prison

Music

Of all the country stars dubbed an “outlaw,” Merle Haggard is easily one of the most qualified for the title.

Merle rebelled early and often after the death of his father, racking up a long rap sheet that included car theft, armed robbery, hopping trains, skipping school, and assault.

Some of these crimes were serious and others were petty, but the repeated nature of the offenses was amplified by his ability to escape from many of the work camps and detention centers where he was housed. An often cited figure is that Merle escaped prison a total of 17 times in his life, but author Marc Eliot dug deep while writing The Hag: The Life, Times, and Music of Merle Haggard and determined that Merle had a total of 17 entries on his rap sheet, but that the number of escapes was certainly in the single digits.

Merle’s life may have been one totally and completely made up of crime had it not been for one of the most iconic moments in country music history.

In 1960, Johnny Cash was playing one of his famed New Year’s Day concerts at San Quentin prison and a young, 20-something Merle Haggard happened to be in attendance. It’s often reported as 1958 (Merle wasn’t at San Quentin yet) or 1959 (Merle wasn’t in the audience), but it was actually 1960 when Cash played with Merle in the crowd. What he saw from Johnny both on and off stage convinced him to straighten his life out, at least from the criminal aspect, and truly give a career as a country artist a shot. You can read that entire story here.

But, as you may expect from a young convict, Merle wasn’t impressed when he learned that some country music star was coming to perform at his prison. Rightly so, he was weary, as celebrities will often appear somewhere just to make a good headline and then scamper back to their money and mansions as quickly as possible.

In a 2014 interview with the Des Moines Register, Haggard said:

“I thought Johnny Cash was kind of corny, I didn’t care for him until after he came. There were 5,000 men in there that didn’t care if he lived or died and he was a tall, slim country boy with a corny band. He shouldn’t do that good.”

However it didn’t take long for him to change his opinion once he saw the actual man the Johnny was.

“He surprised me. He was wonderful, it was unbelievable. He captured those 5,000 men and I don’t believe there was a guy in there left that wasn’t a Johnny Cash fan.” 

In another interview, Haggard gave more details on exactly what it was that endeared him to the convict crowd:

“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… it set a fire under me that hadn’t been there before.”

If that doesn’t prove the power of Johnny Cash, the fact that he was able to breakthrough to a hardened, stubborn guy like Merle Haggard, than I don’t know what would.

From thinking he’s corny and not really liking him to being a huge fan and changing his whole life because of one performance, that right there exemplifies what music is at its best and why it’s so important that we continue fighting for and promoting the real, quality music that continues to be made today.

Read original source here.

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