On This Day: Merle Haggard Releases First #1 Hit ‘The Fugitive’ in 1966

by Clayton Edwards
(Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns/Getty Images)

Before Merle Haggard was an outlaw country icon, he was a pure, American outlaw. He is a big name in the subgenre because he started out singing songs that he could relate to. Those songs still strike a chord with listeners today. His first number one hit, originally titled “The Fugitive” is a great example of this.

“The Fugitive” – Origin and Release

The song was written by Liz and Casey Anderson. The song title may seem ironic, considering Haggard’s time in prison, but at the time, the couple was unaware of Haggard’s criminal history. They based the lyrics on the popular early-sixties TV show of the same name.

The show centered around Dr. Richard Kimble. He was wrongly convicted of his wife’s murder. On his way to death row, he was able to escape custody and embark on the hunt for his wife’s real killer. In the show, Kimble was constantly on the move and hunted by authorities. It was a great inspiration for a country song.

Mrs. Anderson was a prolific songwriter. She penned songs that turned into hits for some of the biggest names of the era. These names included Merle Haggard and Conway Twitty among others. There was no way they could have known how well the lyrics of the song would match Haggard’s history.

In December of 1966, Merle Haggard released the track, which would later be titled “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” as the first single and title track from his 1967 album. “The Fugitive” went to number one on the Hot Country Songs chart and would be Haggard’s first number one hit.

Why Did the Song Fit Merle Haggard So Well?

When he released “The Fugitive” Haggard had only been free for six years. In 1960, he finished his final prison sentence in the infamous San Quentin State Prison. Following years of arrests, escapes, imprisonment, and rambling Haggard decided to settle down. He turned his life around and started focusing on his musical career.

Haggard didn’t have to write the song to resonate with it. He lived the song before it was ever written. When he sings, “I raised a lot of Cain back in my younger days/ While Mama used to pray my crops would fail/ I’m a hunted fugitive with just two ways/ Outrun the law or spend my life in jail,” it’s believable because it’s the truth.

The combination of Merle Haggard’s talent and this authenticity helped to push this song not only to a number one spot on the charts but also into legendary status.

“The Fugitive” and “Mama Tried” would go on to be some of the biggest songs of Haggard’s career. They share the authenticity that can only come from living the lyrics of the songs. He may have started as an outlaw, a fugitive, and a rambler, but he used those experiences and the knowledge gained from them to become one of the biggest names in country music history.