Country great Merle Haggard died at the age of 79 on Wednesday (April 6) and when looking back on his legendary career, it’s hard not to think about another music icon: Johnny Cash.
For many, names like Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and, yes, Johnny Cash all come to mind when referencing the glory days of country music; the days that embraced the rougher honky tonk elements — aka “Outlaw Country” — mostly unheard in today’s popular music.
It’s interesting to think that if not for the likes of Johnny Cash — and Lefty Frizzell, according an NPR interview with Haggard — that the man may have never decided to pick up a guitar. After dropping out of school in the 8th grade, it didn’t take Haggard long before continuing a life of petty crimes. Serving his first jail term when he was just 11-year-old, it was seven years later when Merle was arrested for burglary and thrown in San Quentin for a 15 year term.
He may have only served two years of that sentence but in 1958, 20-year-old Merle Haggard saw Johnny Cash perform live. It was Cash’s first prison show and the concert left a lasting impression on Haggard.
Later, Merle talked about that iconic performance saying, “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. When he walked away, everyone in that place had become a Johnny Cash fan.”
For Haggard, though, it was more than a newfound fandom that he achieved that fateful day. Once he was free, it wasn’t long before he picked up a guitar and began playing back-up for Wynn Stewart’s band, once Stewart was out of town.
That was 1962 and a year later, Haggard released his first album, “Strangers.” By the middle of the ’60s, though, Merle Haggard cemented his own place in the country music world as he did his part in shaking up the establishment. With 1966’s “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” becoming his first No. 1 hit, Haggard went on to garner 37 more.
To say this “Okie from Muskogee” didn’t leave an impact, would be a huge misnomer. Yet, without witnessing a young Johnny Cash in action, who knows if the world would have ever witnessed Merle Haggard’s “Outlaw” greatness. The two became great friends, which lent to Haggard’s uncanny ability to impersonate Cash.
“Johnny Cash was a special friend to me,” Haggard told Taste of Country in 2015. “We understood each other – we had the same upbringing, the same sense of humor.” While Cash may have been a strong influence on Haggard, it was Johnny’s perception that really drove things home: “He said to me, ‘Merle, you’re what people think I am,” Adding, “I really miss him.”
Now, the same can be said for Merle Haggard. Rest in peace, Sir.