Among the most esteemed and beloved accomplishments of country music legend Johnny Cash was the fact that he brought live music to men behind bars, a tradition he started by mounting a concert at San Quentin Prison in California on January 1, 1958.
Always a cultural outlier, Cash felt great sympathy for those who broke the rules and ran afoul of authority. As a devout Christian, Cash also regarded reaching out to comfort and uplift society’s fallen members as an exercise of his faith. Plus, he had already won huge fans among the incarcerated via the 1957 hit “Folsom Prison Blues.”
With that in mind, the singer-songwriter went against the advice of his management and record company to set up a series of performances inside prison walls, beginning with San Quentin.
Cash wanted the inmates to know that they were not forgotten and that, beyond the guard towers, people out there did care about them. He also hoped his songs and the joy of witnessing his band in action would inspire the prisoners to believe they were capable of moving on to better things.
In the case of one San Quentin inmate who attended Cash’s first-ever prison concert, that certainly proved to be the case. Merle Haggard, who was just 20 years old and doing time for burglary, credits Cash’s appearance with launching him on a path out of jail and into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“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.”
Throughout the rest of his career, Johnny Cash continued to perform at correctional institutions. Two albums containing recordings of such shows became smash hits and enduring classics: Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968) and Johnny Cash at San Quentin (1969).
Around the time that those LPs were electrifying the public worldwide, Merle Haggard, by then a country music superstar himself, appeared on ABC’s The Johnny Cash Show.
Cash had urged Haggard to talk on the air about how the younger singer had overcome his criminal past and how many of his hits, such as “Mama Tried,” were autobiographical accounts of a troubled early life.
Sitting side by side and strumming guitars on the show, Haggard says to Cash: “The first time I ever saw you perform, it was at San Quentin.” Cash responds, “I don’t remember you being in that show, Merle.”
Haggard then answers, “I was in the audience, Johnny.”
From there, the two friends and musical giants duet on the heartfelt prison lament “Sing Me Back Home.” Merle Haggard provided living proof that, by reaching out though music to those who were lost and locked up, Johnny Cash had done what that song title stated.
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Main photo: Johnny Cash Live album cover [Wikimedia Commons]