When Merle Haggard sings about life behind bars, he’s playing three chords and the truth. He served almost three years in California’s maximum-security facility San Quentin for burglary before being paroled in 1960. But while Haggard may have been free from his cell, he continued to carry the stigma of being a “branded man.” Instead of regressing to previous bad behaviors, however, he channeled both his experience inside and out of the prison walls into some of country music’s most evocative songs: “Sing Me Back Home,” “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” and, of course, “Mama Tried.” Today, as country fans note the Hag’s 78th birthday, we count down his 12 most badass prison songs.
Throughout his catalog, Haggard often sounds regretful as he recounts misdeeds. But that's not the case on 1971's "Huntsville," which has a churchy-sounding organ and the overall feel of a Seventies' vintage cop-movie soundtrack. Bound in leg irons and on his way to the big house, a defiantly unrepentant Haggard grouses about how "that old white-haired judge from Dallas" didn't buy his made-up alibi. And he grouses about the hard labor that awaits ("My hands don't fit no choppin' hoe/And cotton never was my bag"), already daydreaming about escaping to Mexico. It sounds like the internal monologue of a bad guy busted by Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry."
Unlike some of his other jail songs, this track from the I'm a Lonesome Fugitive album isn't autobiographical. Instead, Haggard tells the story of a man who killed his wife while "insane with rage," only the jury convicts him of premeditated, first-degree murder. As punishment, they spare him the chair and leave him to live with his guilt: "I prayed they sentence me to die/But they wanted me to live and I know why/So I do life in prison for the wrongs I've done." A year later, the Byrds, led by Gram Parsons, would cover the song for their Sweetheart of the Rodeo LP.
This chart-topper is based on Haggard's incarceration in San Quentin for a robbery conviction. The song is told from the viewpoint of his fellow inmate Jimmy "Rabbit" Hendricks, who escaped and killed a state trooper while on the run, eventually getting caught and later put to death. In this telling, Rabbit wants Haggard, his "guitar-playing friend," to sing an old favorite gospel tune before his execution. It's so earnest and filled with regret that you almost feel bad for this murderer, a delicate balance that Haggard pulls off, likely knowing that he could have been in the same spot if he decided to flee alongside his pal.
Though it was written by Liz and Casey Anderson, Haggard's hard-living past lent authenticity to this song, his first Number One single. According to the man himself, Haggard escaped from lock-up over a dozen times, so who better to sing about life on the run, torn between freedom and the desire to settle down? What really seals the feeling of isolation and woe are the gorgeous backing vocals from Bonnie Owens, Haggard's wife at the time, almost as if they're imagining what life would be like if he returned to crime and kept them apart for good.
This was the song that started it all. Before Merle Haggard became a country groundbreaker, he was a run-of-the-mill lawbreaker at California’s San Quentin prison, serving time for burglary. And then, in 1958, Johnny Cash visited. Performing his own most badass penitentiary song, “Folsom Prison Blues,” for the prisoners, Cash had a profound influence on the young inmate, who upon release set out on forging a career as a singer-songwriter — he recorded his own version of “Folsom” for his 1968 Mama Tried album. While not as famous as Cash’s, it is full of authentic regret and remorse, the kind that can only come from time spent asking, “What the hell have I done?”
Haggard made this Tommy Collins track his own on 1967's Branded Man, if not for one pretty significant reason: he actually played in a prison band while doing time at San Quentin, where he was in the audience when Johnny Cash stopped by to play his own set of jailhouse blues. "I learned to play the guitar, and I am doin' the best I can," he sings to a locomotive beat not unlike the one that Cash wowed Haggard and his fellow inmates with back in 1958. "I guess it could be worse, 'cause I made the prison band." As much his experience in the lock-up caused irreversible mental turmoil (as documented on many, many songs) he also can credit the place for providing the foundation for a career that forever resisted existing behind anyone's stone walls.
There’s one thing worse than being stuck in a jail cell with a smelly dude who may or may not beat you up while you sleep: being held captive by the suffocating memory of an ex-lover. Ah, the prison of broken romance, which Haggard sings so well on “House of Memories,” where the home that once brought joy now carries nothing but arresting flashbacks to all that he’s lost. Appearing on 1967’s I’m a Lonesome Fugitive, this woeful ballad (which also inspired the title of his autobiography) shows just how adept the Hag could be at tapping into raw, emotional wounds with the tender corners of his range – and illustrating how love can be a sentence with no chance for parole.
While not technically a “prison” song — the titular characters end up shot dead, not behind bars — the crime saga is Haggard’s cautionary tale of what could happen if a pair of bandits don’t come out quietly, hands above their head. In this case, the doomed crooks are infamous real-life duo Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and Haggard, who penned the song with wife Bonnie Owens, delivers their tale with a historian’s attention to detail. Or at least the been-there knowledge of someone who has done their share of robbing. “Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” became a Number One for Haggard and featured Glen Campbell on the story-song’s propulsive banjo.
Written by Curly Putman, "Green, Green Grass of Home" is best-known for Tom Jones' operatic 1966 version. And yet Merle Haggard's more restrained take from 1968 might be the best of all. It appears on his Mama Tried album as the second song, immediately following the title track as one of the great opening one-two punches in country music history, and the performance is stunning. Haggard stoically describes bucolic back-home scenes of ma and pa and sweetheart Mary, "hair of gold and lips like cherries." Then the tempo slows for the spoken-word punchline verse, in which the narrator awakens from his dream to "four gray walls that surround me" and the realization that it's his own execution day at the prison. Nobody can do forlorn like Haggard, punctuated with crying pedal-steel. It's tear-in-your-beer time, if only beer were on the last-meal menu.
Like "Green, Green Grass of Home," the singer's own impending execution figures into "Will You Visit Me on Sundays?" But instead of calm restraint, this one goes straight for over-the-top pathos. Facing a crack-of-dawn date with the hanging tree he can see from his cell – "Sunrise I'll meet darkness, and death" – a panicked Haggard begs a lover to promise to visit his grave. His desperation comes from the realization that the only life he has left is to be remembered. Chilling.
Luckily for Haggard, his music career never again required him to answer the "have you ever been convicted of a crime?" question on a job application. Even though he straightened his life out by the time he recorded this 1967 hit, the country star sings for all the ex-cons who did their time but can't shake the stigma of their crimes: "No matter where I'm living, the black mark follows me," he sings. "I'm branded with a number on my name."
Covered by everyone from the Grateful Dead (at Woodstock, no less) to Percy Sledge, "Mama Tried" stands as one of the Hag's signature and most-covered compositions. It's easy to see why. Entire Hall of Fame careers have gone by without yielding up a single line as indelible as "I turned 21 in prison doin' life without parole." But no other version measures up to Haggard's original, thanks in part to the master's mournful blue-collar deadpan, which conveys a been-there verisimilitude that can only come from actual incarceration (San Quentin class of 1957, represent). Yet the song's true money shot is Roy Nichols' spry lead-guitar lick. The six-string equivalent of a sly wink, it's an acknowledgement that for all the heartache being bad causes mamas, it's also a lot of fun — until you get caught.