Merle Ronald Haggard was born in 1937 in an unimaginatively named oil town called Oildale, California, born to parents who had recently been part of the great migration from Oklahoma to California, the same voyage as captured in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, published two years after Haggard’s birth. Oildale was a small town just outside Bakersfield, the number one landing zone for Okies as they hit California, and the later home of a distinct country style Haggard would help pioneer. In a bit of foreshadowing for his life and the album these Listening Notes accompany, Haggard was literally born in a railroad boxcar; the Haggard clan had moved into a reclaimed car that was repurposed into a small house shortly before he was born. His dad worked the railroad, and young Merle got an education in the music of the Okies: a faster, harder-edged folk music that sounded like muscly bluegrass.
When Haggard was nine, his dad died suddenly and traumatically from a brain hemorrhage, an event that would very nearly ruin Haggard’s entire life. Without his dad to keep him in line, Haggard — a boy already prone to running and riding the rails he lived close to — dove headfirst into a life of petty crimes and juvenile deviancy, stealing, robbing and defrauding people all around south central California. At 14, he’d leave for a full year, riding the rails to Texas and working a variety of odd jobs to feed himself before serving time in a variety of juvenile detention facilities. Haggard gained a reputation for how many times he escaped from said facilities; until he started serving time in adult jail, no lockup could contain Haggard for long. He’d be in and out of 17 institutions in his youth.
Sometime in there, he caught the music bug, teaching himself to play guitar and write songs after receiving a guitar as a gift from an older brother. He’d intermittently try his hand singing and performing when he could, but nothing much stuck for him in the career or life’s purpose departments. At 20, married with children, and without much by way of income, he tried to stick up a Bakersfield bar, and was sent to a local jail. When he, as he was wont to do, tried to escape, he was sentenced to harder time at the infamous San Quentin State Prison.
It’d make for a nicer narrative if merely being sentenced to time in San Quentin turned Merle’s life around, but this is country music: There are no tidy narratives. Haggard was still a terror when he got to San Quentin in 1958; he couldn’t keep a prison job without being fired for various offenses, and spent most of his time trying to plot an escape with a fellow inmate. At some point during his first year in San Quentin, he started an alcohol brewing business in his cell, and when he was caught, was sentenced to a week of solitary confinement. While there, his cell was next to the notorious rapist and murderer Caryl Chessman — a cause célèbre for celebrity writers and thinkers in the ’50s after authoring a series of lightning rod books claiming he was innocent and framed and arguing against the death penalty — who was awaiting his execution (which would ultimately be passed down in 1960). While alone with his thoughts, Merle learned that the inmate he planned to escape San Quentin with had succeeded in escaping but was later arrested for murdering a police officer. Realizing that he very well might’ve done the same had he been on the lam with his friend, and knowing he didn’t want to spend life in solitary or on death row, Haggard was inspired to go straight. He’d get his overdue high school diploma and hold down a job in prison.
It would take a New Year’s Day show by a traveling country singer to give Haggard something to run toward, however. Johnny Cash, in his post-“Ring of Fire” and “Walk the Line” limelight, made it a regular part of his touring itinerary in the ’50s to hit San Quentin and Folsom prisons, largely to appeal to the hardened men who were his most ardent audience. Haggard was in attendance for one of these shows and would later credit Cash with giving him the inspiration to join the prison band, where he completed his musical education. Due to his improved behavior, Haggard was paroled in 1960.
By the time Haggard got out of prison, Bakersfield had become an unlikely hot spot for a fresh new sound of country music. Buck Owens, another Bakersfield resident, had become a country star thanks to pioneering the Bakersfield Sound, a sound that stood in firm opposition to the polite, sanded-down sounds coming out of Nashville at the time. Owens and his Buckaroos were one of the first country groups to record with the tools of the rock band — amplified guitars and bass — and among the first to use a dedicated trap set drummer who gave the music, already souped up by the electricity, a powerful, wild sound. Owens would have 21 No. 1 hits, but a true son of Bakersfield — Owens merely lived there and called the town his own — would surpass him.
It didn’t take long for Merle to get a reputation around town; he’d fairly quickly even add Buck’s ex-wife Bonnie as a backing singer to his band. In 1965, he signed to Capitol Records, which was looking for a replacement for their biggest star, Faron Young, who’d recently jumped to Mercury. Haggard would be the label’s greatest country success in the ’60s through the ’80s. His debut, Strangers, came out in 1965, and he had his first real hit — “Just Between the Two of Us,” a duet with Bonnie Owens, who by then was his wife — a year later. But his first three albums sold modestly, and there was no indication that he was poised to become one of country music’s biggest stars in 1967. But thanks to I’m a Lonesome Fugitive, Merle reached that seemingly impossible destination.
When Liz Anderson — by then a fairly famous country songwriter who’d penned “Just Between the Two of Us” and “(My Friends are Gonna Be) Strangers” for Merle, giving his band its name — set off on a cross-country ride with her husband Casey, she’d unknowingly be inspired to write Haggard’s breakthrough single. That and the recent TV show that had become a hit, The Fugitive, led the Andersons to write “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” a song that captures the loneliness and ennui that comes with being a man on the run. “I’d like to settle down, but they won’t let me,” the Andersons wrote. “I’m on the run, the highway is my home.” Merle loved the song, and it would be his first No. 1 country hit, a smash that put him on the map.
But here’s what’s even more remarkable about the song: The Andersons had no idea of Merle’s criminal past when they presented him “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” and, in fact, wouldn’t even learn about it until much later. Haggard did his best to put his running and prison life behind him, to the point where he never talked about it. And this being the conservative country music of the ’60s — where a song about obtaining birth control could be seen as radical — Haggard kept his past under wraps in case it would derail his career’s trajectory. It wouldn’t be until later in the decade, when Johnny Cash — always inspiring Merle! — told him he needed to tell people about his past, since he could serve as an inspiration and also prove Cash’s point, made on At Folsom Prison, that society owed more to its incarcerated. Haggard would come out as a past criminal on Cash’s variety show, and it in fact improved his career.
All of which is to say, there is maybe no better unintentional pairing of song and singer than Merle on “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.” The best country songs are ones you believe, and it was no great stretch to imagine Haggard being exasperated at his predicament, existentially and physically drained being on the road, wishing he could come home or that he had somewhere to run home to.
Thematically, the song also served as the centerpiece of the album, which is filled with songs about rough living, prisons both real and imagined, skid rows and bottles with no bottoms. Merle wrote eight of the 12 songs here and carried them with him throughout his life. “House of Memories” became the title of his autobiography, and “Someone Told My Story,” with its tale of a man slowly realizing that a country song was written about his life without him knowing it, might as well have been Merle’s memoir.
“Life in Prison” finds a guy praying that he’d be sentenced to death, but instead is sentenced to life in prison, where his life is, “a burden everyday.” “Skid Row” finds Haggard celebrating life as a ne’er-do-well on skid row after losing everything, ultimately finding some happiness in at least knowing he controls his own destiny. A cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ “My Rough and Rowdy Ways” plays like an apology for his life as a criminal; Merle certainly could connect with the lyrics about spending years boozing and brawling. And “House of Memories” serves as a paean to all that you leave behind when you choose a life on the run; when all you’re left with is bad memories, the best you can do is try in vain to escape them. Not only does the subject matter connect, Merle’s voice is clear and beautiful; unlike some of his fellow performers who’d later be Outlaws, Haggard’s voice could never really be described as, well, haggard. He sang clear and true, even if his songs were about tough times and rough roads.
The Strangers — who for this album at least had later superstar Glen Campbell sitting in — are a well-tuned machine on I’m a Lonesome Fugitive, with guitarist Roy Nichols especially standing out for how he could will a Telecaster into an instrument that sounded like it was a banjo, a guitar and a mandolin simultaneously. “Skid Row” has a fiery solo and plucked main melody, and it’s his plaintive riff on “Drink Up and Be Somebody” that drives home the song’s alcohol-as-courage desperation more clearly. But listen to “Life in Prison'' especially for the archetype of country guitar.
I’m a Lonesome Fugitive would hit No. 3 on Billboard’s Country Albums Chart, Haggard’s biggest-selling album up to that point. While it created the launchpad for everything that came next, its largest impact is in how it gave Haggard a creative direction beyond “the new Buck Owens doing the Bakersfield sound.” His next few albums all centered around songs of criminals and jails and being on the run. I’m a Lonesome Fugitive begat “Mama Tried” begat “Branded Man” begat “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde.” And in some ways, it also set the table for Haggard’s signature song and biggest hit, 1970’s “Okie from Muskogee”; once Haggard was no longer afraid to own up to being a criminal, he was also free to celebrate the other parts of his identity.
While that song has been held up as a paragon of anti-Hippie sentiment, Merle’s running even extended to people trying to pin him down for what his beliefs were. He’d often give conflicting stories of what “Okie” was actually saying — was it jingoistic or was it satire? — bouncing back and forth over the years to the point where it’s a Rorschach test: you see what you want to see in it. And that even extended to his personal life. Haggard smoked pot for most of his life, and was one of the few big country stars to come out on the side of the Chicks (previously Dixie Chicks) when they were blackballed by the Nashville music industry. But he had his crimes expunged and commuted from his record by Ronald Reagan, a friend, and thought that country hippies like Gram Parsons and rock bands like the Rolling Stones were privileged dweebs, and he was a favorite of Richard Nixon, who’d asked Johnny Cash to play “Okie from Muskogee” when Cash played the Nixon White House (he declined). He was impossible to box in and he liked it that way.
Haggard would eventually have 38 No. 1 songs, play thousands of shows and more or less tour from the late ’60s until his death in 2016 from double pneumonia on his 79th birthday. But he lives on in the fabric of country music and in every road trip, every escape and every train ride.