Merle Haggard's Lost Interview: Country Icon on Johnny Cash, Prison Life

In an unearthed, intimate 2007 interview, the "Branded Man" singer-songwriter recalled his friendship with Cash and his time behind bars

Johnny Cash is the focus of a previously unpublished interview with the late Merle Haggard. Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty, Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Merle Haggard's death on April 6th, 2016, marked the passing of an undeniable country-music icon, one who existed in the same rarefied air as George Jones and Johnny Cash. In this unpublished interview with Haggard from 2007, it's Cash who is on the Hag's mind. The occasion was a conversation for the 2008 documentary Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, a film about the singer's platinum album recorded 49 years ago on January 13th, 1968, in front of entertainment-starved California inmates. As director Bestor Cram and the author soon learned, no one was more qualified to weigh in on Cash's kinship with the incarcerated than Haggard, the grizzled star of the West Coast brand of country music who himself had been locked up in San Quentin State Prison when his idol performed there in the late 1950s. "It was like seeing Muhammad Ali or something," remarked Haggard with his casual poeticism. "He was on top of the world."

When Haggard sat among his prison brethren and absorbed Cash's performance, he was like bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins as a youngster in 1920, watching the elder Blind Lemon Jefferson in a Texas field, or the unknown Buddy Holly beholding Elvis Presley from the wings of a Lubbock, Texas, show in 1955. Haggard plucked the fruit of a tradition, like Hopkins and Holly, a gift that inspired a career studded with high-water marks like "Mama Tried," "Workin' Man Blues" and "Big City."

In the interview, Hag pinpointed the devilish charm that the Man in Black reliably unleashed for a prison audience, but he also revealed his own obstinacy, vulnerability and thoughtful insight, traits that made Haggard every bit as complex and compelling as his old friend Cash.

Tell me about your friendship with Johnny Cash.
We were always humorous with each other. I criticized him one time for something he did, and he answered me, "Haggard, you have the ugliest face in country music." We had that kind of sense of humor back then. But later I missed a couple of dates out in Oregon when I was 49 years old, and he and June called me and said, "What's the matter, Haggard, did you get ahold of some bad dope?" I said, "No." He said, "What's the matter?" I said, "I'm 49 years old, Cash. I'm fixin' to turn 50." He said, "Oh, my God. I wound up in rehab when I turned 50. I totally understand." … He helped me every time he had a chance to help me, and I would have done the same for him.

Did he ever talk to you about dealing with fame?
We never talked about each other's career. He talked about his family a lot. I talked about my family. We both liked Jimmie Rodgers. He loved my guitar player Roy Nichols, and I loved his guitar player Luther Perkins. We talked about them a lot, especially after Luther died in the fire. My guitar player was the same kind of guy. We carried him out of a ring of fire a couple of times. He'd be hunkered up and the bed would be burning around him. Both of them smoked like trains. Everybody smoked back then. Roy had nearly set himself on fire two or three times. And that's what happened to Luther. We talked about Luther a lot.

"When he didn't have a voice and he was able to bring the people around, I understood the power of Johnny Cash. It was overwhelming"

When did you first hear Cash's name and his music?
I heard him when he first came out in '55. I heard them all. I was two years younger than Elvis, and I was in a lot of trouble then. I was going to jail a lot. I went to jail and did a year, '54 to '55, and Elvis came out. Elvis got my attention first and I liked Jerry Lee Lewis a lot and Carl Perkins. I was a fan of all of those Memphis guys. I worked in the nightclubs quite a while before I got lucky with records and I did all of their songs and identified a lot closer with them than Hank Williams or somebody. They were more my age and it was a little more modern. And it was rockabilly. That's sort of what I was. Both Elvis and Johnny were widely accepted by people in jail. They were both rebellious against the system, and we read that clearly. That's what they saw in Cash, that he didn’t like the system and he didn’t like the people in charge and didn't like being told what to do.

You were in his audience in the late 1950s at San Quentin Prison in California.
He didn't know that until years later, but I was. I was in a 1958 audience New Year's Day at San Quentin. He lost his voice that day. It was just a whisper. But his charismatic manners sold him to the convicts. They really liked him, and I did, too, and I was prepared not to like him for some reason. When he didn't have a voice and he was able to bring the people around, I understood the power of Johnny Cash. It was overwhelming.

There was everything from jazz bands to strippers on the show, things that would ordinarily take the limelight away from any male performer without any trouble, and there he was without a voice and it impressed me a lot that he was able to sway the crowd in that way. The next day down in the yard the players that knew I was a player came to me, and they all wanted to learn that Luther Perkins lick. It was an event. It was like seeing Muhammad Ali or something. He was on top of the world, and he took time to come by. He did it again and again and was appreciated again and again. Finally, the world understood.

Why do you think Cash kept returning to play prisons?
I think, "For the grace of God there go I." That was his feelings towards the convicts. He was about a quarter of an inch from there himself. Had he not had money he probably would have wound up there. He was Johnny Cash, and he got away with things that he knew he shouldn't have got away with. There's probably guys in prison for doing less than things he did every day. And he knew that. One time he told me, "Haggard, you're everything that people think I am." I said, "Yeah, but not by choice." He never really had been to jail. He spent like four hours one time in a jail. But he identified. He understood somehow, and the convicts knew it.

His career exploded after the At Folsom Prison album.
Radio was a different animal back then. It hadn't gone completely from radio to television, and I remember one time going through the dial coming out of Los Angeles and we hear Cash four different times sing "Ring of Fire." On four different channels at the same time. I don't think I ever remember anybody that got quite that hot. Not Elvis. Not [Lefty] Frizzell. Cash was really the hottest I ever seen. He had several hits right in a row there. He got the television show [1969's The Johnny Cash Show, on ABC]. "Folsom Prison Blues" was a hit for him twice: when he first came out with it in '55 and when he did it live in '68. I sure do remember his explosion.

But before that album, his career had kind of bottomed out.
Nobody knew but the insiders what he was going through. That low that you're talking about probably wasn't as noticeable to the fans as it was to him. June [Carter Cash] may have saved his life. But has anybody talked to you about the Johnny Cash before she came along? It might be interesting to know that he was really wild. He ran around with two or three people that were just ornery, and she didn't like them. When she broke up the friendships and the wildness that had been going on for 12 or 13 years, the guys who got fired didn't like her at all. I knew who she was. She was like royalty in country music. Cash changed when he got with her. He didn't ever associate with those people no more. I wasn't part of them, but I knew them as well as he did. It was probably better for him that he didn't associate with them no more because they were the people that was taking him [drugs] he wanted, and she was trying to get him off of it. In the movie [2005's Walk the Line], it talks about Waylon Jennings. Waylon wasn't the one bringing him the stuff. Waylon was just there to help him consume it.

You followed in Cash's footsteps and also played for prison inmates.
I went back to San Quentin three or four times. I never did go to Folsom, for whatever reason. I went to Fort Leavenworth and I went to Huntsville in Texas. And I went to a couple of women's prisons. We went to the Wyoming State Prison, which only consisted of 40 women. They went crazy over my saxophone player that day. I had him play "Honky Tonk." He was the hero.

How do you mold a show for prisoners?
You kind of let them direct you. They sometimes are adamant about an area of your career that you might not even be aware of. They want something that you might have forgot about. They're in charge of their show and they know it and I let them know it. They just kind of help me along.

When Cash was on a prison stage, he was playing Johnny Cash. He wanted them to believe he'd been behind bars.
I think he convinces you. He was gifted with that look and that ability. He didn't really have to do that much to come off that way. He just looked the part.

Do you try to project that when you play for that audience?
I don't think about it if I do. It's a little bit of a stigma for me. I'd rather not have to think that the only reason I had success was because I went to San Quentin. I might steer clear of that a little bit. I do my songs. I don't talk about it. Which you can understand that.

Cash was understood by many convicts to be one of them, so what is "one of them"?
You know, America is set up to where if you get a break in life – if you have an education, if you have money – then all that America is supposed to be is at your fingertips. And if you're a guy who's been to jail and has none of those things that I mentioned, America isn't real. It's hypocritical. … You never find a wealthy man in prison. It's always somebody who didn't have a lawyer. I guess you look for a friendly voice and Johnny Cash was that friendly voice. And he was making it out there amongst all those people we didn't understand and it gave me inspiration to try.

Cash stopped performing at prisons in the 1970s. Do you know why?
I think there was a riot or something that happened. It was like being in a lion's cage or something. They thought they were immune to those mean people in that prison and something happened coming out of one of the joints where they couldn't get out for a little bit and it scared the hell out of him and June both. They told me it did. They didn't go back after that. He didn't realize that some of the people in there hated him just because of the way he was.

I seen the same thing happen to Burt Reynolds and his girlfriend at the time, Dinah Shore. There were three movies, Smokey and the Bandit and two sequels, and Burt offered me the part that Jerry Reed took. He offered it to me the night after we did Fort Leavenworth. What happened at Fort Leavenworth was kind of sideways with me. He went in there, Burt did, and he went out on stage and wiggled his ass at the convicts. They started whistlin' and booin' at the same time. I don't know why he did that. They were about ready eat him alive. Then Dinah came out and they all but booed her. And I came out, and they gave me a standing ovation. Well, when they edited our show for television, they gave her my standing ovation. So I never even replied to the offer on the films. I said, "Shit, if they're going to do me that way on a television show, what would they do to me on a series of movies?" So I passed on that. Probably was a mistake.