Rick Diamond, Getty Images Country music is forever changed by the passing of…
- Posted on Dec 31st 2010 4:30PM by James Sullivan
Fifty-two years later, 73-year-old country music legend Merle Haggard has just been celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors by President Barack Obama, alongside a Beatle named Paul McCartney and Haggard's new gal pal, "Ope" Winfrey.
On the first day of 1958, Haggard was serving a three-year sentence inside San Quentin, the notorious California state prison located just north of San Francisco. After Haggard's father died when the boy was 9, he began to act out by breaking the law. As a teenager, he escaped from more than one juvenile detention center. He also started playing music. At a performance by one of his heroes, Lefty Frizzell, the headliner recognized Haggard's singing ability from the audience and invited him onstage.
But the budding singer's career was cut short when he was busted for attempting to rob a barroom in his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif. In San Quentin, he passed up an opportunity to make an escape with a fellow inmate called Rabbit. On the outside, Rabbit shot a police officer, and he was brought back to San Quentin to await his execution.
On the first day of 1958, the inmates of San Quentin were permitted to attend a performance by country star Johnny Cash. Cash had been fascinated by prison life since watching a B-movie called 'Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison' while serving in the Air Force in the early 1950s, as author Micahel Streissguth has recounted. One of Cash's earliest hits was 'Folsom Prison Blues,' and in 1957 he accepted an invitation to play for inmates at Huntsville State Prison in Texas.
By the time he played San Quentin for the first time, Cash was beginning to realize he could use his celebrity to make a case for prison reform. "I just don't think prisons do any good," he said a decade later, after the release of his landmark live album 'At Folsom Prison.' "They put 'em in there and just make 'em worse, if they were ever bad in the first place."
At San Quentin, Cash thrilled the young rebel Haggard with his evident disregard for the corrections system. "He had the right attitude," Haggard recalled. "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."
Haggard wanted to flip a guard the bird, too. But what he really wanted was to get out and sing country songs about real men and their troubles, just like Johnny Cash did. After his friend Rabbit's death sentence, Haggard began to work toward his high school equivalency diploma. When he was released in 1960, he started playing music in earnest.
He scored his first hit four years later with a cover of Wynn Stewart's 'Sing a Sad Song.' The originator of such timeless songs as 'Sing Me Back Home,' 'Mama Tried' and 'The Bottle Let Me Down,' Haggard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994.
Johnny Cash's 'At San Quentin' album came out in 1969, a year after his smash hit album recorded at Folsom. Three years later, California Gov. Ronald Reagan pardoned Haggard. Years after that, when Cash brought his family to see Haggard perform in Arkansas, he told the former inmate, "You're number f---in' one in our house."