12 Most Badass Merle Haggard Prison Songs - Rolling Stone
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12 Most Badass Merle Haggard Prison Songs

From “Huntsville” to “Mama Tried,” count down the country legend’s best tunes inspired by his time behind bars

Merle Haggard prison songs

Many of Merle Haggard's most beloved country songs were inspired by his time in jail.

Michael Ochs Archives

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. 

Merle Haggard

CIRCA LATE 1960s: Country musician Merle Haggard performs on stage with Bonnie Owens during a late 1960's concert. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

4

“Green, Green Grass of Home”

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.

Merle Haggard

CIRCA LATE 1960s: Country musician Merle Haggard performs on stage with Bonnie Owens during a late 1960's concert. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

3

“Will You Visit Me on Sundays?”

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.

Merle Haggard
2

“Branded Man”

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."

Merle Haggard prison songs
1

“Mama Tried”

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.

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