In December of 1957, Merle Haggard found himself in an unusual predicament that earned him a spot in “The Book of Lists #3,” specifically in the chapter titled “19 Stupid Thieves.” Collaborating with his friend Mickey Gorham, they attempted to break into a California restaurant after hours, only to discover that the establishment was still open. Merle was apprehended and served time in San Quentin, an experience that would prove pivotal in shaping his future.
During his incarceration, Haggard faced seven days of solitary confinement for a moonshine-making endeavor (how he managed to gather the materials within prison remains a mystery). Emerging from isolation, he was determined to change his life. In 1960, upon his release, he redirected his focus toward music as a legitimate vocation.
Merle Haggard had previously been in the audience during Johnny Cash‘s first of two concerts at San Quentin. Cash later advised Haggard to candidly share his prison experiences with the public. This counsel proved wise, as prison themes permeated each of Haggard’s first three number-one singles.
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“The Fugitive” (or “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive” to avoid confusion with the popular TV series at the time) reached the top of Billboard’s country chart on March 4, 1967, marking the first of Haggard’s chart-topping hits. On September 2nd, his own composition, “Branded Man,” returned him to number one. Following suit, “Sing Me Back Home” continued the prison narrative, although its connection to incarceration was less overt.
This poignant song narrates the story of a Death Row inmate requesting a song that would remind him of home before his execution. Inspired by a real-life acquaintance in San Quentin named Jimmy “Rabbit” Hendricks, who had committed a crime outside the prison walls, the song was a reflection of a somber moment Haggard witnessed in the prison yard.
Most of Haggard’s hits on Capitol, including “Sing Me Back Home,” were produced by the seasoned Ken Nelson. Nelson, Capitol’s country division head since 1952, played a crucial role in shaping Haggard’s distinctive sound. Known for his easy-going approach in the studio, Nelson let the artists and musicians excel in their craft while providing support when needed. Merle Haggard fondly recalls Nelson’s seemingly nonchalant demeanor during sessions, where he would announce takes and then engage in doodling while attentively listening. Nelson’s contributions to country music were substantial, earning him a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, alongside other industry greats like Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley, and Don Law.