January 6, 2017

TOP OF THE WORLD (profanity alert):

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 (Michael Streissguth, Rolling Stone)

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. [...]

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.

Posted by at January 6, 2017 8:50 AM