Despite all my Sunday learning
Towards the bad I kept on turning
Till Mama couldn’t hold me anymore…
On January 1, 1958, Johnny Cash played his first ever prison concert, at San Quentin State Prison in California. In the audience for that show was a 20-year old on a 2-year stint for burglary, his 4th incarceration since the age of 11, and a stint that began with a daring escape (and eventual recapture), as well as his administration of a gambling racket and an in-prison beer-brewing venture .
A few years earlier, that 20-year old had gone to see Lefty Frizzell in concert, finagled his way backstage, and sang for Lefty in such a way that the country music icon refused to perform without allowing that teenage ex-and-future-convict to sing a few songs.
In the end, however, it was a stint in solitary confinement that inspired that 20-year old to pursue a new life, one which produced 38 #1 hits, helped steward one of the state of California’s greatest cultural-musical products, and became the inspiration for an Oscar-winning film.
Yet none of this matters in the shadow of Merle Haggard’s voice, which even today, on the date of his passing, is still perhaps the greatest in country music history.