The Unbroken Circle is a recurring feature where I discuss classic country songs.
Even before the general public knew him as a former convict, Merle Haggard made his mark on country music with a relentless support for the downtrodden man.
Perspective is key when analyzing Haggard’s discography and life – a good man who, troubled from the early death of his father, rebelled against every facet of his younger life, including his own mother; all while soaking in the country music he loved. Like his icon, Jimmie Rodgers, there was a rebellious spirit about Haggard. He ran away at age ten by hopping a freight train, then ran away again at fourteen to hitchhike to Texas.
Not to look on Haggard’s past with rose-colored glasses, of course; for as much as his restlessness was just him self-serving a lonely soul in search of independence, there needed to be consequences for his actions. Haggard got a thrill from it, really, at least until one incident in 1957.
In December of that year, Haggard and a friend, Mickey Gorham, tried to break into a restaurant in California after hours. If the restaurant hadn’t still been open, the plan would have probably worked, too. This time, based on his history and long rap sheet of escapes, he was sentenced to 15 years in San Quentin, a maximum-security prison he intended to escape, even though no one had in eight years.
Haggard and a fellow inmate dubbed “Rabbit” hatched a plan one night to do so (they would hide inside a desk he was building in the prison furniture factory), though at the last moment Rabbit advised Haggard not to take part in the plan. Rabbit escaped, was subsequently recaptured, killed an officer and was brought back to San Quentin to be executed. It was the first of many events to change something in Haggard’s mindset, though not before, in the midst of his sentence, he endured seven days of confinement for making moonshine. He figured, then, the only true way out would to just be a model prisoner. He was released two and a half years into his sentence.
“Something happened to me there,” Haggard says in Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns’ Country Music: An Illustrated History. “I came to the fork in the road and took it, you might say. And I kind of started back in the other direction, trying to make something out of myself rather than to dig myself in a deeper hole.”
Haggard turned to music as a legitimate vocation after seeing Johnny Cash’s first of two concert appearances at San Quentin, and it was Cash who later convinced him to be candid with the general public about his experiences. Wise advice, especially when prison themes underscored much of his earlier work, including “Branded Man” and “The Fugitive.”
“Sing Me Back Home” follows in that vein, though not in the same obvious manner. It tells a tale of a prisoner, bound for execution, whose last request is to be reminded of his home; it was Rabbit who inspired the song. The song walks a fine line of moral ambiguity, making listeners feel sad for an incorrigible criminal, but also know that, for Haggard, the feeling of watching someone make that final walk doesn’t ever leave.
Haggard’s most notable prison sentence may have forever diverted him from a criminal life, but it did nothing to erode the edgy impulsiveness that remained a strong component of his work. He’d never forget those faces on death row, the dusty men he mixed in with in hobo jungles, or the canvas-covered labor-camp cabin where his Great-Aunt Willie Harp and his Great-Uncle Esker Harp lived. Whatever he engaged with over the years turned up in his music in some form, and the way he expressed it tended to be framed by the abiding sympathy he had for the people he felt were pushed around in life. And yes, that also included watching his mother’s face beginning to show her age as she tried to settle him down, and noticed the grooves that unhappy love stories made under the eyes he met in roadhouses. “The songs,” he once said, “are written from the back of your mind and the cushion of your experience.” Like with anyone, really, there was always a difference in who Haggard was and who he tried to be. To not be able to help himself is the point, and even if he ever could have, he’d lose an essential part of himself.