On This Day: Johnny Cash Performs at San Quentin Prison in Front of Merle Haggard in 1959

by Chris Haney

On this day in 1959, country legend Johnny Cash performed one of his iconic concerts at San Quentin Prison with future country star Merle Haggard in attendance.

Cash arrived at the prison on Jan. 1, 1959 to play a free show for the inmates. However, Cash did not know he would be playing in front of another future country legend that day.

Haggard, only 19 years old at the time, was serving a 15-year sentence for grand theft auto and armed robbery. He only served three years in prison, but sat in the audience as Cash played for the inmates that New Year’s Day.

According to reporter Emily Yahr of the Washington Post, Cash’s performance inspired Haggard to turn his life around. Haggard spent many of his teenage years getting into trouble with the law. He committed multiple petty crimes and went in and out of juvenile detention. Yet, Cash’s concert at San Quentin led Haggard to focus on his untapped musical talent and live a different life.

Editor for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Michael Gray explains that Cash’s performance changed Haggard.

“He kept getting in trouble at San Quentin,” Gray said. “Seeing Johnny Cash encouraged him [to say] ‘You know what, okay, I need to grow up and get my act together.’ It encouraged him to really just focus on music and quit getting in trouble and get out of prison and get on with his life and career.”

Johnny Cash Convinces Haggard to Open up About His Past

Johnny Cash played multiple shows at different prisons beginning in the late 1950s. His famous prison concerts at San Quentin and Folsom were not recorded until the late 1960s. But, a young Merle Haggard caught an early performance in 1959, which changed his life.

In addition, Haggard often spoke about what Cash’s visit meant to him. He touched on seeing Cash in prison in his 2002 autobiography, “My House of Memories: For the Record.” When speaking about his time in prison, he points to Cash’s performance helping him become a better man.

A decade later after Cash’s 1959 concert at San Quentin, Haggard joined the country legend on his show. Haggard had already become a country star himself by August 1969 when he appeared on “The Johnny Cash Show.”

(Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

According to Gray, Cash encouraged Haggard to share more about his past with his audience. For the first time, Haggard spoke on television about his past and his troubles with the law. Additionally, Cash thought it would be good for Haggard’s fans to know that his hits like “Mama Tried” were based on real life.

“The first time I ever saw you perform, it was at San Quentin,” Merle Haggard said to Johnny Cash during the appearance.

“I don’t remember you being in that show, Merle,” Cash responded.

“I was in the audience, Johnny,” Haggard joked.

[H/T Washington Post]