'Sing Me Back Home': The Story Behind Merle Haggard's Saddest Song

Merle Haggard is regarded as one of the greats of country music. He is on the metaphorical country music Mt. Rushmore next to George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash. The California singer-songwriter had 38 No. 1 hits over his career. Among them was "Sing Me Back Home."

It is a well-known fact that Haggard spent his early adulthood behind bars for a failed attempt at robbery. While in San Quentin State Prison, Haggard wrote many songs while he was dreaming of freedom and life beyond the bars of a cell.

"Sing Me Back Home" came from the prison captive himself. He released the song in 1967 as the first single and the title track of his record, Sing Me Back Home. The song spent two weeks at No. 1 and 17 weeks on the country charts. The song was Merle Haggard and The Strangers' third No. 1 hit. And it's one of the saddest country songs ever written and recorded.

The song "Sing Me Back Home" was inspired by fellow inmates James Rabbit and Caryl Chessman, who were also dreaming of freedom. Rabbit was executed in 1961 for killing a California Highway Patrolman, and Chessman was the first modern American executed for a non-lethal kidnapping.

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Several artists have either performed or released their own versions of the song, including The Everly Brothers, Joan Baez, The Grateful Dead, Don Williams, Alabama, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Marianne Faithful & Keith Richards.

The song tells the story of a condemned prisoner that is being taken to the death chamber. The prisoner's last request is to hear a song from his friend and inmate who regularly plays for him. The song takes the prisoner back to his hometown, where he remembers the church he grew up in, his friends and his mama. He is settled into comfort as the inmate sings him back home to his final resting place.

The warden led a prisoner down the hallway to his doom
And I stood up to say goodbye like all the rest
And I heard him tell the warden just before he reached my cell
"Let my guitar friend do my request"

Let him sing me back home with a song I
And make my old memories come alive
And take me away and turn back the years
Sing me back home before I die

I recall last Sunday morning a choir from off the streets
Came in to sing a few old gospel songs
And I heard him tell the singers, "There's a song my mama sang
Could I hear it once before you move along?"

Let him sing me back home, with the song I used to hear
Make my old memories come alive
Take me away and turn back the years
Sing me back home before I die
Sing me back home before I die

A list of other hits by Haggard:

"Mama Tried," "The Way I Am," "Pancho & Lefty," "Misery and Gin," "If We Make It Through December," "Mama's Hungry Eyes" and "Okie From Muskogee"

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