Merle Haggard, Country Singer
I was a wild boy and my father died when I was nine, so I got into trouble a lot. In my early twenties, I spent a few years in San Quentin for burglary. They put me in the toughest place because I’d made 17 escapes from prison or juvenile halls. I was tempted to escape from San Quentin, too, but music kept me there. I wrote 10,000 songs at San Quentin — they weren’t no good, but I had to write those songs to get to the good ones. Music saved me. It made me a survivor.
Then on New Year’s Day, 1959, Johnny Cash came to play at San Quentin. I wasn’t really a fan prior to that show. When he got there, he couldn’t sing — I guess he’d had a rough New Year’s Eve up in ’Frisco. I thought he’d get his ass booed off that stage. But he got that crowd in the palm of his hand.
The next day, 25 or 30 guys in the courtyard wanted to learn to play the guitar like Johnny Cash. He was just so charismatic. If there were 40 other stars in a room, he’d be the one you’d look at. What other star are you gonna look at? Eminem? C’mon. You look at fuckin’ Johnny Cash, and you know it. I said to myself, "If he can do that without his voice, then I can do something with my talent."
I didn’t meet Johnny until 1963. We were on the same TV show in Chicago, and I was next to him at the latrine. We’d both been up for days. He bumped my shoulder and held out a Dexedrine pill. He then held out a flask with wine in it and said, “Wash it down with this.”
He didn’t know I’d been in San Quentin. In 1969, I was a guest on his TV show, and I thought to myself, "I’ll confide in ol’ John, tell him where I first saw him." I told him I loved his show at San Quentin, and he said, 'I don’t remember you playing in that show.' I said, “I wasn’t in the show. I was in the audience.” Our relationship was never the same after that. We became like brothers. He once said to me, “You’re exactly what people think I am.”
I miss ol’ John.
This article was originally published in 2011.