It Was 50 Years Ago Today: Merle Haggard Earns His First #1 With “The Fugitive”

March 7, 1967
“The Fugitive” (aka “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive”) by Merle Haggard
#1 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart, March 4-10, 1967

Country — like its cousin, the blues — has long been the music of the oppressed. It’s the sound of people who fight for the right to exist, and for their marginalized voices to be heard. When country and blues joined forces to birth rock and roll, that sense of struggle was diluted into teenage rebellion. But despite country’s often conservative attitudes and moralizing streak, it still retains a raw edge of danger and an affinity with the downtrodden that sets it apart from mainstream pop.

Perhaps no major country star embodied the outlaw archetype more than Merle Haggard. Johnny Cash may have recorded “Folsom Prison Blues” and played concerts to inmates, but he had never been arrested for more than a handful of minor offenses. Haggard, on the other hand, spent his teenage and young adult years in juvenile institutions and jails. He ultimately ended up in San Quentin Prison from 1958 to 1960, transferred there from Bakersfield Jail after a failed escape attempt.

At San Quentin, the onetime robber and thief was confronted with grim reminders of what lay at the end of the road to ruin. He encountered infamous death-row inmate Caryl Chessman, and one of Haggard’s inmate friends was condemned to execution after a botched escape attempt that the singer had nearly joined. (The latter’s death inspired “Sing Me Back Home,” a future number-one hit.) After his release from San Quentin in 1960, Haggard committed to turning his life around, getting a legitimate job and focusing on his burgeoning musical career.

Along with his friend and colleague Buck Owens, Haggard became one of the leading lights of the Bakersfield Sound, a harder-edged, honky-tonk-flavored style of country that cut a sharp contrast to the smoothed-out, middle-of-the-road country-pop coming out of Nashville. Haggard named, and was briefly a member of, Owens’ band the Buckaroos; he even married his mentor’s ex-wife, Bonnie Owens. As Owens began making inroads into the country charts in the early ’60s with the Bakersfield Sound, Haggard followed close behind, earning his first Top 10 hit, “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” in 1964.

While Haggard was a talented songwriter in his own right, “Strangers” was written by Liz Anderson, a fellow country singer and mother of future star Lynn Anderson. With her husband Casey Anderson, she also penned another hit for Haggard called “The Fugitive,” about a man who “must outrun the law or spend [his] life in jail.” While a title like “The Fugitive” may promise high drama and thrilling escapes, the song itself depicts a more prosaic scene. Its repetitive, chugging guitar line reflects the monotony of constantly moving from place to place, unable to connect with other people or enjoy life’s pleasures. Instead, the fugitive travels merely to survive, pursuing freedom while being pursued by the law. “I’d like to settle down, but they won’t let me,” Haggard mourns. “A fugitive must be a rolling stone.”

The Andersons were unaware of Haggard’s criminal past when they presented the song to him, but it struck a nerve. Although he had served his time and gone straight, Haggard still thought like a fugitive, harboring an innate fear of being caught. In the liner notes of his 1994 compilation Down Every Road, Bonnie Owens recalls Haggard describing his uneasy freedom: “I’m afraid someday I’m gonna be out there… and there’s gonna be some convict… some prisoner that was in there the same time I was in, stand up… and say, ‘What do you think you’re doing, 45200?'”

As much as Haggard feared being exposed as an ex-con, his greatest success came once he embraced his checkered past. In early 1967, “The Fugitive” became Haggard’s first country number-one hit, capping his climb from felon to star. (The song’s title was changed to the more familiar and descriptive “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” when the album of the same name was released that year.) Before “The Fugitive,” Haggard had mostly kept his criminal background a secret; afterward, however, he released a slew of other prison-centered hits, including “Branded Man,” “Sing Me Back Home,” and, most famously, “Mama Tried.”

“The Fugitive” was the first of Haggard’s incredible run of 38 country number-ones over two decades. When the popularity of many of his contemporaries, including Buck Owens, began to flag in the ’70s, Haggard’s hard-bitten persona kept him vital during the “outlaw country” era. As commercial and polished as the country music industry can be at times, it’s still built on the bones of music for the poor, the lonesome, and the outsider on the run.

It Was 50 Years Ago Today examines a song, album, movie, or book that was #1 on the charts exactly half a century ago.

About Sally O'Rourke 205 Articles
Sally O’Rourke works in an office and sometimes writes about music. She blogs about every song to ever top the Billboard Hot 100 (in order) at No Hard Chords. She has also contributed to The Singles Jukebox, One Week // One Band, and PopMatters. Special interests include girl groups, soul pop, and over-analyzing chord changes and lyrics as if deciphering a secret code. She was born in Baton Rouge and lives in Manhattan. Her favorite Nugget is “Liar, Liar” by The Castaways.