A cold, concrete jailhouse isn’t really the ideal music venue, but Johnny Cash was never one to judge. He accepted everyone. His fans were everywhere.
In the video of Cash’s infamous live recording at San Quentin prison in 1969, you will see just that. As he performed for inmates in the maximum security prison, Cash didn’t act better than any of them. Instead, he connected with them. He sang songs that spoke to them. His tough, outlaw demeanor earned him respect, and his music — whether he knew it or not — inspired many.
Though Cash’s live recording at San Quentin would later go on to be his 31st album, earn a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year and become triple platinum, it was in that very prison a decade before that truly started it all.
Cash first performed at San Quentin on Jan. 1, 1959. In fact, it was the first prison performance of his career. The first San Quentin show would also help pave the way for another country music legend and close friend of Johnny Cash: Merle Haggard.
Haggard had been in and out of prison several times before he landed in San Quentin in 1957. Looking back, some might consider his stint in the prison more of blessing than a curse. Had he not been there when Johnny Cash arrived, his road may have been much different.
Haggard credits Cash for inspiring him to shape up once he was released and focus his energy into a country music career, which has spanned over 52 years, launched 38 number one singles and included a couple of appearances on The Johnny Cash Show.
In a recent interview with Men’s Journal, Haggard revealed the moment he told Cash about seeing him perform at San Quentin prison.
“Johnny Cash was a special friend to me. We understood each other — we had the same upbringing, the same sense of humor. One time we were doing a television show and he was talking about playing San Quentin in 1958, and I said, “You didn’t have a voice that day, Cash!” And he turned around like, “How the hell would you know?” And I said, “I was there.” It blew him backwards.”