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Johnny Cash never actually went to prison, but he felt great compassion for prisoners.
Cash cared so much that he gave countless free prison concerts and has even recorded a few live albums at his shows there. His live album Johnny Cash At San Quentin wasn’t recorded and released until 1969, but he began performing there a decade earlier.
His first concert at San Quentin Prison was on January 1, 1959. One of the inmates in attendance at this concert was none other than Merle Haggard. Cash’s performance inspired Haggard to turn his life around and pursue a country music career.
Michael Gray, editor for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, told The Washington Post in 2016 about how Haggard told Cash he was actually one of those inmates.
The Man In Black encouraged Haggard to talk about his rough past during an appearance on The Johnny Cash Show, to show the audience that his songs, including “Mama Tried” were real.
Cash brought up San Quentin at one point, and according to Gray, this is how the conversation went down:
Haggard: “Funny you mention that, Johnny.”
Haggard: “San Quentin.”
Cash: “Why’s that?”
Haggard: “The first time I ever saw you perform, it was at San Quentin.”
Cash: “I don’t remember you being in that show, Merle.”
Haggard: “I was in the audience, Johnny.”
For Haggard, Cash’s appearance was life-changing, but not everyone saw it that way. Even a decade after he started playing these concerts, they remained controversial.
Before he started this particular performance he asked, “Any of the guards are still speakin’ to me, can I have a glass of water?” After receiving a small cup of water, Cash began singing his hit song “San Quentin.” The inmates went crazy for the line “San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell.”
The video is combined with other clips of the inmates walking in lines and the guards walking around with guns. Watch the amazing performance below.