Merle Haggard - I'm A Lonesome Fugitive (1967) - Album Review

By Sergio Ariza

I'm A Lonesome Fugitive was the song that confirmed Merle Haggard as a major country star, giving him the first of his 38 number one hits on the country charts. Although we are talking about one of the three best songwriters in the history of the genre, the song was not his, but that of the couple formed by Liz and Casey Anderson who had based it on the popular tv series The Fugitive. Of course, everyone took it autobiographically as Haggard had spent several years in San Quentin as a young man and was able to give the song the weight of his own experience.  


This album goes far beyond his best remembered song, by showing us several great samples from his pen and lyrics such as Life In Prison, House of Memories, All of Me Belongs to You, Drink Up And Be Somebody, Someone Told My Story, as well as another excellent version of a Jimmie Rodgers’ classic, My Rough and Rowdy Ways.

Even that was different for this guy who came to be known as the people's poet and whose songs spoke to the deep American experience like no other, defining for a whole generation what a country song was. Haggard ‘forgets to put filler in the record’ and delivers another great album backed by his faithful The Strangers, with the inimitable sound of Roy Nichols' Telecaster, which sounded almost like a pedal steel, plus Ralph Mooney's steel: two of the stones on which the Bakersfield sound was built.


Haggard, who would later record countless songs on the subject, had not at that time talked about his time in prison on any song, so it's only natural that he was nervous when he decided to record the title track. As his wife at the time, Bonnie Owens, recalls, he kept thinking that someday the past would come knocking on his door: "I'm afraid someday I'll be out there...and there'll be some convict...some inmate who was in there at the same time I was, who'll get up - and he'll be like in the third row - and say, 'What do you think you're doing, 45200?’" It was
Johnny Cash himself who told him that the best thing he could do was talk about it in some song before the gossipy media stuck their noses into his past.

Another of the album's great songs is the mournful Life In Prison, which suggested that it was almost better to be executed than to live locked up for the rest of your life. Demonstrating its enormous influence on rock, the Byrds chose it as one of the versions of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, the album that saw the birth of a movement, country rock, the year after the appearance of this I'm A Lonesome Fugitive. His powerful baritone voice also stands out in those songs of broken hearts and a lot of alcohol that are All of Me Belongs to You, House of Memories or in the explicit Drink Up And Be Somebody that closed a great first side.


Although the second side was not so rounded, it was not bad either and it had again a couple of great songs like the exceptional Someone Told My Story, about a guy who plays a song in a jukebox and when he hears the lyrics he can't believe how much it resembles his life - something that really happened to many people with Haggard's songs, then the direct If You Want To Be My Woman appeared, which showed that Haggard also listened to Ray Charles, as well as
Hank Williams. It's normal that Gram Parsons adored him, as this guy shared his vision of 'cosmic American' music.

Of course, the last great moment of the album came with his revision of one of the pieces of the father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers, My Rough and Rowdy Ways, mixing country and blues to perfection, helped by excellent musicians, such as Mooney on steel or the indispensable Nichols, confirming himself as the best possible disciple of Rodgers, Hank Williams or Johnny Cash.