Life In Prison

Album: I'm a Lonesome Fugitive (1967)

Songfacts®:

  • This song is about a man who is found guilty of murder after killing his lover. He is spared the death penalty, but faces a worse fate: life in prison. Tormented by his past, he'd rather die than rot in jail.

    Merle Haggard spent much of the 1950s in juvenile detention and prison, where he crossed paths with many murderers - "Life in Prison" comes from that experience. The crime that landed Haggard the most jail time was a restaurant robbery - when the owner appeared, Haggard fled, but left his wife and child behind in the car, making him easy to track.
  • The Byrds covered this song on their 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Gram Parsons had been hired by The Byrds to replace David Crosby and he persuaded the band to record their next album in Nashville, the home of country music. This Merle Haggard song was one of several country recordings they covered. The Byrds bassist Chris Hillman believes that Gram Parsons had no right to sing this. He told Uncut magazine March 2008: "Here's a kid with a trust fund from a very wealthy family, singing 'I'll do life in prison for the wrongs I've done.' Perhaps there's some subtext to that in his tortured soul; that's for a psychiatrist to determine. But he was really a clean-cut guy then."

    Parsons was never an official member of The Byrds but was still part of The International Submarine Band. Lee Hazlewood, to whose LHI label Parson's band had signed, was not impressed that his charge had hooked up with The Byrds. He successfully prevented Parsons' vocals from appearing on this track and the other songs on the album. Consequently Parsons' vocals were replaced by guitarist Roger McGuinn's.

    Though not a commercially successful album at the time, Sweetheart of the Rodeo has subsequently been recognized as highly influential and one of the seminal recordings of country-rock. Musically it isn't straight country as Hillman told Uncut magazine: "We just were doing stuff with an emphasis on a different groove. A different 2/4 rhythm, which is a straight country beat. Or waltz time. But we had already done that. Look at our early stuff, and there's a lot of stuff you could call country-rock. For the Byrds to do Sweetheart of the Rodeo was no great makeover. We didn't become different people. We didn't have to learn different things."

Comments: 1

  • Niles from Belpre, Ohsweetheart of the rodeo. gosh , I still have the album
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