We lost a lot of people in 2016, and one of them was Merle Haggard. The Okie from Muskogee was a legend in his own right, but did you know that he did time at San Quentin Prison? Before he was a country music legend, Haggard led a life of crime that involved armed robberies, prison escapes and all kinds of mischief, but that’s not what I want to talk about today.
When Johnny Cash played at San Quentin in 1959, Merle Haggard was sitting on the front row. In fact, Haggard credited Cash with inspiring him to turn his life around and devout himself to music. This is how Haggard described Cash in his autobiography:
“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.”
Now, I’m not suggesting that this kind of life-changing moment is happening in prisons all over the United States, but I absolutely love the idea that an incarcerated person can change their heart. This idea, that a man who has walked a dark path can turn around and do some good in the world, is at the heart of everything I believe about the world. Most people won’t turn around, but there are a few, a handful, that will “see the light” and start to walk the line.
When I first started writing The Bleak December way back in 2014, I stuck one character’s father in prison because I wanted to create some sympathy for her in the minds of my readers. It can’t be easy growing up with an incarcerated parent. As the story progressed, I realized that I was going to need to include this character’s father in order to complete her story arc. This gave me the opportunity to say some things about redemption that have been heavy on my heart.
There are a lot of bad people in the world. There are people that hurt others, sometimes carelessly and sometimes intentionally. Terrible things happen every single day. But every once in a while a person learns their lesson and can be redeemed. It happened to Merle Haggard. It happened to Johnny Cash. And there are people out there, some behind prison bars and some in prison’s of their own making, that are looking for someone to show them how to get off the wrong path and onto the right one.
Remember that. Whenever you meet someone, whenever anyone crosses your path, you might be the Johnny Cash to their Merle Haggard.