Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash both learned the value of prison at around the same time.
For Cash it was the release of the two prison albums that made him one of the biggest-selling artists; for Haggard, a former convict who saw Cash play at San Quentin in 1958, it was the discovery that a country singer with a criminal record was an attractive commercial proposition.
Between 1967 and 1974 Haggard (then married to the ex-wife of fellow Bakersfield legend Buck Owens) released a string of excellent albums on Capitol that allowed the singer to ruminate upon his past.
The title track of his album I’m a Lonesome Fugitive (1967) provided his first country #1 and became an unofficial anthem for this part of his career.
The album was a big hit – a blend of love songs and prison ballads, delivered in Haggard’s direct and witty way, and kick-starting a welcome period of acclaim.
A superb songwriter, guitarist and lyricist, Haggard mixed Hank Williams with Frank Sinatra and was backed by a band, The Strangers, who could play a blend of country, swing, blues, soul, pop and “country jazz”.
His outlaw outlook gave Haggard considerable counterculture appeal (despite his hippie-baiting smash Okie from Muskogee), The Grateful Dead sang his songs, The Byrds covered Life In Prison on Sweetheart of The Rodeo, and in 1973 Haggard agreed to produce Gram Parsons‘ next album – a plan curtailed by Parson’s untimely and early death.
Having suffered in later years from cancer, Haggard died of pneumonia on his 79th birthday (6 April 2016).