Credit: AP
by Sam C. Mac Featured Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon Music

Merle Haggard — I’m a Lonesome Fugitive

September 30, 2023

In 1960, Merle Haggard was released from jail — he served a two-year stint in San Quentin for burglary. Before long, Hag started recording for the small Tally Records and notched a modest hit when Bakersfield icon Wynn Stewart gave his blessing to record the as-yet-unreleased “Sing a Sad Song.” But by 1964, Hag still hadn’t landed a top 10 on the country charts, and wasn’t quite famous. Then a fortuitous meeting occurred: Haggard went to the Sacramento home of songwriter Liz Anderson. To read about the two sides of this encounter is to experience a near-perfect microcosm of the era’s misogyny. Here’s Hag in his 1981 autobiography: “If there was anything I didn’t wanna do, it was sit around some danged woman’s house and listen to her cute little songs. But I went anyway. She was a pleasant enough lady, pretty, with a nice smile, but I was all set to be bored to death.” Meanwhile, others have pointed out that, at the time of their meeting, Anderson already had a top 10 hit as a writer (Del Reeves’ 1961 single “Be Quiet Mind”) and was friendly with a lot of Bakersfield artists — including a country singer more well-known in the industry than Haggard was: his labelmate at Tally and future wife, Bonnie Owens. When Owens would send her singles to radio DJs, she would often slip one of Haggard’s songs into the same envelope; it was Owens who introduced Hag to Anderson, and who asked Anderson to come out to one of Hag’s shows when he played near Sacramento. In any event, Anderson was impressed with her house guest, and for his part, Hag recognized the error of his own obstinance quickly, recalling in that same passage from his autobiography that the songs Anderson played sounded like “one hit right after another” — and soon, they were his hits.

The songs from that initial meeting with Anderson turned out to be formative for Hag’s career in a number of ways: One of them, “Just Between the Two of Us,” was cut as a duet in 1964 with Owens on Talley, and later re-released when Haggard signed a new contract with Capitol; another, “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” gave Haggard his much sought after first top 10 single on the country charts. “Strangers” also became the namesake for both Hag’s debut studio album on Capitol and his newly-minted backing band. Even more importantly, though, Haggard would continue to tap Anderson for his next two albums, including the one that represents not only the gold standard of his Capitol years (1965–1977), but the album that best represents his whole ethos as an artist. I’m a Lonesome Fugitive was released in 1967, and led-off by a title track penned by Liz Anderson and her husband Casey that spent 15 weeks on the country singles chart, peaking at number one. For a time, many assumed that “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” was an autobiographical statement from Haggard, but the Andersons in fact were totally unaware of Hag’s still-fairly-recent bid in San Quentin, or for that matter his youth spent fleeing law enforcement, when they played him the song — which was actually inspired by the David Jansen-starring, 1965-1966 primetime TV series The Fugitive. Nonetheless, Hag’s obvious personal connection to the song, and its chosen subject matter, informs this whole album, starting with the song that Hag chose as the B-side to “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive”: “Someone Told My Story” (which Hag did write) almost functions as a wry acknowledgment of its counterpart, its stunned narrator singing, “I could scarcely believe the song I heard…It was almost like I’d written every word.” He’s nominally commenting on the echoes of his own doomed romance that he hears in the jukebox’s lament, but plenty is left unsaid about the details of that dissolution. The song gains even more weight on the album, where its lover’s longing is fleshed out on some adjacent weepers (“Mary’s Mine” and “Whatever Happened to Me”). But more importantly, it’s also contextualized by songs that represent the other half of this album’s title — alternately rowdy and haggard (sorry) songs about the inevitable fallout from living a life looking over your shoulder for the law.

Hag’s pseudo-concept album never stops wrestling with the rich tension between its central character’s vulnerability and his toughness. That may not be the most original of cowboy archetypes (the presence of Jimmie Rodgers’ classic “My Rough and Rowdy Ways” acknowledges the lineage), but arguably there’s never been a country singer with a voice more capable of selling both sides, the authentic grit and the sensitive pathos, and his execution is flawless. From the anxiousness of the metronomic lick that soundtracks “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” like a ticking clock hot on the escaped con’s trail; to the braiding of romantic and penal angst on “House of Memories” (“My house is a prison / Where memories surround me“); to the sober storytelling of “Life in Prison” (one of Hag’s best-ever songs); to unabashed rave-ups like “Drink Up and Be Somebody” and “Skid Row” — the breadth of psychological color and lived experiences here are a perfect compliment to the consummately impeccable musicianship. More precisely, though, the Strangers are in exceptional form here: while the hodgepodge recording sessions of 1966’s Swinging Doors and the Bottle Let Me Down meant that they were still finding their sound (taking heavy influence from Buck Owens and the Bakersfield style), the chemistry of Roy Nichols’s scalpel-sharp Telecaster, James Burton switch-hitting between electric guitar and fretted dobro, Ralph Mooney’s scene-setting steel guitar, and Bonnie Owens’ clear two-part harmonies makes for a rough-hewn honky-tonk magic on this album. There are also just enough breakout moments from the band that signify awareness of the era’s expanding genre ambitions (Glen D. Hardin’s boogieing piano on “If You Want to Be My Woman,” the softer pop-style guitar of a young Glen Campbell on “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive”). A little over five months after I’m a Lonesome Fugitive’s release, Haggard put out his fourth album, Branded Man, which would try to double-down on the wounded outlaw persona but overshoot a bit on the sympathy side of things and skimp considerably on the rockin’ fun — as a result, leaving the Strangers with a lot less to do. Just under two years on from that, Haggard put out Mama Tried, probably his best batch of songs of the ’60s, but overall lacking Fugitive’s thematic cohesion. Hag and the Strangers would have better success tilling this territory with their Jimmie Rodgers tribute (1969’s Same Train, Different Time) and give arguably a better showcase as a band with their Bob Wills tribute (1970’s The Best Damn Fiddle Player). But the combined achievements of Hag’s most deft and conceptually characteristic focus as a songwriter and the Strangers’ crack playing as a unit make I’m a Lonesome Fugitive special — a signature album, even.

Part of Kicking the Canon — The Album Canon.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 11.