January 1, 1958. Cash’s first concert at San Quentin prison. Can’t see him but in the crowd is a 19 year old serving time for grand theft auto and armed robbery. His name was Merle Haggard.
Cash did his first prison concert in 1957, when he played Huntsville State Prison in Texas. While he never served time, Cash felt a bond with inmates, who he knew were often subjected to inhumane treatment. “I don’t see why a man, just because he’s behind bars, should be denied entertainment,” he said. “I can’t see how the prison system is a good thing. It destroys a man’s soul and often he comes out worse than when he went in.”
At this San Quentin show, a young Merle Haggard is captivated. “He had the right attitude,” Haggard says of Cash. “He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards – he did everything the prisoners wanted to do.”
Cash keeps playing prisons, including another New Year’s Day show at San Quentin the following year. In 1968, in need of a career boost, Cash records his show at Folsom Prison in California. The resulting live album revives his career and puts him back in the public eye. In 1969, he even gets his own TV series, The Johnny Cash Show.
One of his guests the first season: Merle Haggard.