My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Merle Haggard & The Strangers – ‘I’m A Lonesome Fugitive’ and ‘Branded Man’

Merle Haggard released two albums in 1967, I’m A Lonesome Fugitive in March and Branded Man in August. Both were produced by Ken Nelson and appear to have been recorded concurrently at Capitol Recording Studios in Hollywood. Like his previous two LPs, the 1967 offerings broke with the day’s usual practice of building albums around one or two hit singles and cover versions of recent hits by other popular artists. Instead, Haggard’s albums consist primarily of original material written by the artist himself, occasionally co-written with Bonnie Owens, and a few select entries from other well-known songwriters including Tommy Collins, Hank Cochran and Liz and Casey Anderson.

The Andersons penned “The Fugitive” (also known as “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive”), which had been released the previous December. It is noteworthy not only because it became Haggard’s first #1 hit, but also because it was his first convict record, a theme he would revisit many times over the next 40 years. Inspired by the popular television series “The Fugitive” doesn’t reveal whether the antagonist is guilty or wrongly accused, which contrasts with Haggard’s later prison songs, in which the narrator is usually guilty and remorseful. The version on the current CD is an alternate take but isn’t significantly different from the better-known hit version. Initially reluctant to discuss his past transgressions, Merle was persuaded by Johnny Cash to face the issue head on rather than giving the tabloids the opportunity to do so. “Life In Prison”, in which the protagonist concludes that a life sentence is perhaps worse than execution, is perhaps his earliest self-penned effort about life behind bars. Although “The Fugitive” was the only single released from this set, many of the album’s other cuts were possible contenders. “Someone Told My Story”, with Bonnie Owens’ prominent and familiar harmony vocals, is a particular favorite of mine, as is “My House of Memories.” There are two covers on the album — a remake of his own “Skid Row” which had been his Tally Records debut a few years earlier, and Jimmie Rodgers “My Rough and Rowdy Ways”, which is only one of three tracks on the album in which Merle did not have a hand in writing (the other two are “Mary’s Mine” and the title track. The original album closed with the spirited “Mixed Up Mess Of A Heart”, which Merle wrote with Tommy Collins. The Buck Owens influence is readily apparent on this track. The current 2-for-1 release includes two bonus tracks: alternate tracks of “Life In Prison” and “Someone Told My Story”, which while nice to have, don’t add much value to the collection.

Branded Man, released five months after I’m A Lonesome Fugitive, is a stronger set than its predecessor. This time around Merle relied a little more on outside songwriters, with Tommy Collins contributing three entries, and co-writing a fourth with Merle. The great Hank Cochran wrote “Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive”. But the highlights of this album are the two singles, both penned by Haggard. “I Threw Away The Rose”, which was perhaps inspired by the 1962 film The Days Of Wine And Roses, was Merle’s follow-up hit to “The Fugitive”. Peaking at #2 in Billboard, it just missed becoming his second #1 hit. Instead, that honor went to the next single, the album’s title track, which topped the chart in September 1967. The semi-autobiographical number deals with an ex-convict’s unsuccessful attempts to wipe the slate clean and get on with his life.

Though it was never released as a single, “Somewhere Between”, co-written with Bonnie Owens, is a well-known album cut that has been covered many times by artists such as Suzy Bogguss and Keith Whitley, and is on my short list of favorite Haggard tunes. Tommy Collins’ “Don’t Get Married” is the best of the non-Haggard penned tunes, but Merle’s cover of the classic “Long Black Limousine” is surprisingly pedestrian and the weakest cut on the album. The album closes with two bonus tracks: alternate versions of “I Threw Away The Rose” and “Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive”. Both are quite different from the better-known versions. They sound as though they were recorded live in the studio, and I suspect that both are previously unreleased Tally recordings.

Because neither album was recorded in Nashville, many of the usual names are absent from the session musician credits, although the great Ralph Mooney plays steel guitar on both albums. Glen D. Hardin, who would later become well known through his association with Emmylou Harris, plays piano. Oh yeah, and some guy named Glen Campbell plays guitar.

This 2-for-1 release, available on CD and as a digital download, is excellent value and well worth adding to your collection.

Grades:

I’m A Lonesome Fugitive: A-
Branded Man: A

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4 responses to “Album Review: Merle Haggard & The Strangers – ‘I’m A Lonesome Fugitive’ and ‘Branded Man’

  1. Paul W Dennis October 10, 2011 at 9:02 am

    Well worth purchasing

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  3. Ken Johnson October 21, 2011 at 11:32 am

    Perhaps because I’ve lived with them for so many years I can find nothing to dislike about either of these two great albums. Merle seamlessly picked up where his previous album left by further polishing his signature Bakersfield style. He wrote superb new songs and selected compositions by others that perfectly suited his distinctive style. To be honest there’s not one song on either album that makes me want to hit the “next” button on the CD player.

    On the “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive” album, “House Of Memories” and “Whatever Happened To Me” are classic Haggard ballads while “Drink Up And Be Somebody,” “Someone Told My Story” and “Mixed Up Mess Of A Heart” (featuring Glen Campbell on harmony) are pure 1960’s country honky-tonk music at it’s best. I was intrigued by your comment regarding the “alternate take” status of the title track as I had never noticed any deviation from the 45 version. An A/B comparison of this CD with my original 45 RPM copy didn’t reveal any differences that my ears could discern. The only minor disparity is that the instrumental fade out ends a few seconds sooner on the CD than on the original 45. I’d love to know what differences you’ve noticed as perhaps my ears just aren’t as sharp as they used to be. (Listening to Merle Haggard music way too loud for too many years)

    “Branded Man” is likewise chock full of more Bakersfield ear candy. I agree that “Somewhere Between” coulda shoulda been a single hit. “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go,” “Gone Crazy,” and “Don’t Get Married” are the standout tracks for me.

    Regarding the bonus tracks:

    “Life In Prison” is an unreleased recording from Merle’s third Tally recording session in early 1964.

    “Someone Told My Story” and “I Threw Away The Rose are unissued recordings from a June 2, 1966 Capitol session in Hollywood. A much improved arrangement of “Someone Told My Story” spotlighting James Burton’s crackling lead guitar was recorded exactly two months later. That version charted as the “B” side of “The Fugitive” single peaking at #32 in early 1967. It was also included on the “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive” album.

    This version of “I Threw Away The Rose” was Hag’s second attempt to obtain a useable master. The first version recorded in Nashville three months earlier had already been deemed unacceptable. This second recording joined the first one sequestered to the vault after the third (single hit) version was finally recorded on November 16, 1966.

    “Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive” was recorded in Nashville on March 2, 1966 at the same session as the first versions of “I Threw Away The Rose” and “The Fugitive.” This was one of the few early Capitol sessions not produced by Ken Nelson. Marvin Hughes & Fuzzy Owen produced this surprisingly good version that remained unreleased for almost 30 years until it was issued in the first Haggard Bear Family box set. On August 3, 1966 the slower tempo, bluesy, piano-based arrangement was recorded. That was the version released as the “B” side of the “I Threw Away The Rose” single and on the “Branded Man” album.

    • Razor X October 21, 2011 at 11:24 pm

      I was intrigued by your comment regarding the “alternate take” status of the title track as I had never noticed any deviation from the 45 version. An A/B comparison of this CD with my original 45 RPM copy didn’t reveal any differences that my ears could discern. The only minor disparity is that the instrumental fade out ends a few seconds sooner on the CD than on the original 45. I’d love to know what differences you’ve noticed as perhaps my ears just aren’t as sharp as they used to be.

      I didn’t play both versions one after the other to really hear what the differences are. As I said, it doesn’t seem to be much different. I probably wouldn’t have noticed it was any different at all if it wasn’t labeled as an alternate take.

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