Johnny Cash’s Concerts at San Quentin

On January 1 in 1958, Johnny Cash gave his first performance at San Quentin Prison.  It would not be his only prison concert, as prisoners often wrote the singer following the 1955 release of his hit song “Folson Prison Blues.”  At the time of his first San Quentin appearance, Cash had already played at Huntsville State Prison in 1957.

A little over a decade later, with his career not doing well, Cash went to Folsom Prison for a concert to be recorded for an album.  He also then returned to San Quentin on February 24, 1969 to record another live album At San Quentin.  That album and At Folsom Prison became two of the best-selling live albums of all time.

The 1969 San Quentin Concert and “San Quentin”

One of the highlights of At San Quentin was Cash’s performance of the song he wrote about the prison, “San Quentin.”  Cash performed two new songs for the prisoners, with one being “San Quentin” and the other being “A Boy Named Sue.”  He performed “San Quentin” twice.

Cash’s most famous prison song, “Folsom Prison Blues” conveys sadness and hopelessness, despite the boast about shooting a man in Reno.  But “San Quentin”is a harder song, reeking of anger: “San Quentin I hate every inch of you.” Below is Cash’s performance at San Quentin in 1969.

The 1958 Performance and Prisoner A-45200

Although the 1958 concert at San Quentin did not yield an album, it did significantly affect music history. A year earlier, an 18-year-old man had been arrested for burglary and, after an attempt to escape from jail, he was sent to San Quentin Prison. Although a judge sentenced the man to fifteen years, the prisoner only ended up serving two. But during those two years, the young man attended the 1958 Johnny Cash concert. And it helped inspire the young prisoner, whose number was A-45200 and whose name was Merle Haggard. The prisoner worked to change his ways, joined a prison band, and devoted his own life to country music.

Haggard later recalled Johnny Cash’s performance at the prison. “He had the right attitude. 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.”

For more on Merle Haggard, the following documentary tells about the singer’s early life. The video addresses Haggard’s stint at San Quentin around the 13:40 mark.



What is your favorite prison song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Merle Haggard, The Impressionist

    We all know Merle Haggard was a great talented songwriter and singer. But a clip from The Glen Campbell Show also shows his impressionist talents.  He was pretty good at copying the voices of some other country music greats.

    In this video, Haggard impersonates several great country singers.  He does his version of Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, Buck Owens, and Johnny Cash.

    Also in this segment, Buck Owens and Johnny Cash show up to join in the fun. Check it out.

    See our previous post on Johnny Cash’s impersonation of Elvis Presley.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Merle Haggard: “Kern River”

    On April 6, 2016, Merle Haggard passed away from complications from pneumonia on his 79th birthday in the state where he was born, California. Along with the likes of Johnny Cash and George Jones, Haggard was one of real legends of country music.

    In my younger years, I learned of Haggard’s music through songs like 1969’s “Okie from Muskogee” and 1970’s “Fightin’ Side of Me,” which may have made me resistant at first due to the apparent political nature of those songs. But eventually as an adult, I fell in love with his music, his voice, and his Bakersfield influence. I found fondness for the above songs and fell in love with many others, like “Tulare Dust” and “They’re Tearing the Labor Camps Down.”

    Heck, the man not only did a tribute album to Jimmy Rodgers, he learned the fiddle just so he could do a tribute album to Bob Wills, The Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (1970). He was the real deal, both as a singer and as a songwriter.

    One of my favorite Merle Haggard songs is “Kern River.” The lyrics written by Haggard tell a mysterious and haunting tale about loss and regret. In it, the singer is an old man in the mountains looking back on his life and a river from his youth, Kern River, which he will never swim again. He recalls that “It was there I first met her / It was there that I lost my best friend.” And it is only later in the song where you realize that the “her” was also his best friend who got swept away by the river.

    The most beautiful line in the song, for me, is in the chorus. The singer now lives on a lake, and he laments, “And I may drown in still water / But I’ll never swim Kern River again.” Something about that line breaks my heart every time, just the way my heart is breaking today at the loss of the country great.

    In this video, Merle Haggard performs “Kern River” on a country talk show in 1984 before the song was even released the following year. Check it out.

    What is your favorite Merle Haggard song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Don Henley and Dolly Parton: “When I Stop Dreaming”

    On Don Henley’s upcoming deluxe album Cass Country, he pays tribute to his years growing up in Cass County, Texas and listening to the radio with his father. On one of the tracks from the album, Dolly Parton joins him on “When I Stop Dreaming.”

    The song is a classic that was recorded by the Louvin Brothers. Check out the former member of the Eagles and the legendary Dolly Parton singing “When I Stop Dreaming.”

    Henley’s album Cass County, which features covers and Henley originals, will be released on September 25. Several of the songs feature guest artists like Mick Jagger, Miranda Lambert, Merle Haggard, and Martina McBride.

    Finally, below is the Louvin Brothers version of “When I Stop Dreaming.” Check it out.

    What do you think of Henley and Parton’s version of the Louvin Brothers song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Willie and Merle Are “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash”

    Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard have teamed up to release the new album Django And Jimmie (2015). The two men, who created country gold with the similarly named 1983 album Pancho & Lefty, feature a range of styles on their new album, incorporating some humor along the way with songs like “It’s All Going to Pot” and “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash.”

    Check out this video about the making of “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash,” a song that also features help from Bobby Bare.

    Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s Django and Jimmie hits stores on June 2, and for a short time you can give it a streaming listen on NPR First Listen. The title song from the album celebrates guitarist Django Reinhardt and country music legend Jimmie Rodgers.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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