Eighty-four years ago this month, on a rural road in Bienville Parish, Louisiana, the notorious crime spree of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow came to a grisly end when the pair were ambushed and killed by law enforcement officers from Texas and Louisiana. Three decades later, Bonnie and Clyde, a landmark motion picture, emblematic of the “New Hollywood” style of filmmaking, would make the infamous couple even more famous, and would jumpstart the careers of future screen icons Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.
In April 1968, as Bonnie and Clyde was basking in critical acclaim – and numerous Oscar nominations – Merle Haggard, who had himself been on the wrong side of the law and imprisoned in San Quentin a decade earlier, was on a musical hot streak. Fifty years ago this week, Haggard’s “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” topped the country chart for two weeks. It was Haggard’s third consecutive Number One single, and fourth overall. Penned with then-wife Bonnie Owens, the song chronicled their lives from their first meeting, noting their criminal history, Parker’s poetry, and their gruesome shared fate – noting, of course, that in the end they had to pay for their misdeeds with their lives.
With “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” the 1949 Flatt & Scruggs bluegrass tune, revitalized by its inclusion in the film’s chase scenes, other music inspired by the film would soon flood the market both in the U.S. and U.K. British singer Georgie Fame recorded “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde,” but its use of machine-gun sound effects caused it to be banned in Norway and censored in America and France. Haggard’s hit single, meanwhile, featured Owens on background vocals and a well-known instrumentalist on banjo: Glen Campbell. Campbell was among the acts who later recorded his own version of the tune. Others who covered it included Tammy Wynette, Buck Owens’ Buckaroos (on a Haggard tribute LP) and David Allan Coe. Perhaps not coincidentally, Haggard would soon star as a lawman in a low-budget crime drama produced by and also starring American Bandstand host Dick Clark. The soundtrack of Killers Three featured Haggard’s next Number One single, “Mama Tried.”
Of special note is the familiar B-side of “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde.” Never released as a single by the country icon, “Today I Started Loving You Again” is nevertheless one of Haggard’s most highly regarded and often-recorded songs, with versions by Emmylou Harris, Sammi Smith, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and the First Edition and dozens of others. In his 1999 memoir, Haggard recalled that after recording “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde,” he received an unexpected phone call from Faye Dunaway telling him how much she enjoyed his song. In the background, Haggard could hear music playing. It was his recording of “Today I Started Loving You Again.”