Johnny Cash Inspired Merle Haggard’s Career: How Haggard’s Time in Prison Led to Country Music Success

by Matthew Wilson
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Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard are both music legends in their own right. Their music spanned decades and defined the genre in the mid-1900s. Both were rough around the edges but spun musical gold every time they opened their mouths. When people say, “They don’t make them like they used to,” they’re surely referring to Haggard and Cash.

But, it turns out, there would be no Merle Haggard fame without Johnny Cash‘s influence. Not only did they become good friends, but Cash inspired Haggard to the straight and narrow path of country music stardom.

Merle Haggard Watched Johnny Cash Perform at San Quentin

By all rights, Haggard was destined for a bad end. The future country singer’s youth is a familiar story to many. Haggard grew up as what people say “dirt poor” and with a chip on his shoulder. His father passed away when he was a boy. Haggard’s mother raised him in a small boxcar home.

The young boy broke his mother’s heart when he turned to stealing. Through his youth, Haggard constantly was on the wrong side of the law. Before he turned 18, he had escaped from jail at least 17 times. He even spent his 21st birthday behind bars. But his crimes finally caught up to him when he was sent to San Quentin after committing a major robbery.

Haggard always enjoyed music, but he never had an inclination to pursue a career in it. He listened to Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins when they hit Memphis. They felt like guys like him, rebels against established norms. Serving time in prison, Haggard and a lot of others could relate to their music.

All that changed when the Man in Black came to town. A young Cash built an audience among the incarcerated with a series of prison tours. Wild and reckless, Cash always felt like he was one foot away from being in a cell beside them. It was an image he capitalized on – the country bad boy as a foil to Presley’s rock-n-roll heartthrob.

One of those stops was San Quentin. Haggard watched a hoarse Cash captivate the audience with barely a whisper.

“It was an event,” Haggard said. “It was like seeing Muhammad Ali or something. He was on top of the world, and he took the time to come by.”

Merle Haggard Met Johnny Cash in a Men’s Bathroom

After Cash’s visit, Haggard decided to get his life together. He felt inspired to finally pursue his passion for music, starting off with a prison band. Upon being released in 1960, Haggard turned his sights toward country music. In 1962, he recorded “Sing a Sad Song,” which proved to be his first national success in country music.

A year later, Haggard finally got the chance to meet Cash as peers on a TV show. The first meeting of these two titans of music occurred where else but a public bathroom. Both men were at the urinals when Cash, not awkwardly at all, offered Haggard drugs. This was before future wife June Carter reined some of the wildness out of him.

“Then I heard him say, ‘Haggerty, you ever do anything like this?’ And I looked and it was Johnny Cash and he had a pill in his hand,” Haggard said. Dexedrine, an anti-drowsy medication, was a popular drug back in the day. The two took the pills together, cementing a friendship that lasted until Cash’s death in 2003.

The Two Country Stars Became Friends

The two singers quickly became ride or die friends. Like friends often do, they would make jokes at each other’s expense. Cash once called Haggard the “ugliest face in country music.” Haggard did a spot-on, if not a bit exaggerated, impression of the Man-in-Black on a TV show. The two would discuss family together or music they liked such as Jimmie Rodgers. They were also a fan of each other’s guitarists.

The two cared about each other like brothers. For instance, Cash and Carter also checked in on Haggard when he missed a couple of shows in Oregon.

“He and June called me and said, ‘What’s the matter, Haggard, did you get ahold of some bad dope?'” Haggard recalled. “I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘What’s the matter?’ I said, ‘I’m 49 years old, Cash. I’m fixin’ to turn 50.’ He said, ‘Oh, my God. I wound up in rehab when I turned 50. I totally understand.’ … He helped me every time he had a chance to help me, and I would have done the same for him.”

Merle Haggard Confesses to His Criminal Past

Another way that Cash helped Haggard is by confronting his rocky past. Haggard had been ashamed of his past crimes as a youth. As he broke into country music, he did his best to avoid talking about being an ex-con. There’s a stigma about spending time in prison that exists even today.

But Cash urged him to discuss it publicly on Cash’s ABC show “The Johnny Cash Show.” Together, the duo discussed Haggard being in the audience during his San Quentin show. The truth garnered some controversy for Haggard. (ABC received some angry letters and hate mail). But in many ways, it also set him free. Songs like “Mama Tried” became authentic portrayals of the singer’s past struggles.

Haggard suddenly became proof that someone from poverty, who made mistakes, can become successful. For that, Haggard’s story is one of redemption and perseverance. Even Cash reflected that Haggard was the person he often pretended to be. In real life, Cash wasn’t quite as gritty as his stage presence made it seem.

Cash told him, “You’re everything that people think I am.”

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